Three IT Challenges for the 2011 Transition

Looming political transitions and tough economic times create an unusual window of opportunity for IT-enabled innovations.
June 16, 2010
Jerry Mechlin
By Jerry Mechling  |  Contributor
A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School

It's not too early to begin preparing for the transition of 2011, where more than 30 state administrations and many local governments will be seeing possible changeover. The Congress, too, will be seeing some new faces as a result of the fall elections.

This 2011 transition will create an unusual window of opportunity to act on critically needed IT-enabled innovations. The opportunity will exist partly because times remain tough, the worst since the Great Depression. In good economic times, politics makes major innovation difficult. Those who might benefit from innovation are satisfied enough with the way things are, and therefore don't pay as much attention as those who see innovation as a threat. While the enemies of change mobilize, the potential friends are distracted.

Tough times offer different dynamics. The politics are just as nasty, but widespread pain generates urgent and powerful pressure for solutions.

Digital technologies will also offer opportunities for the 2011 transition, as they have continued to drive down production costs. We can now reach unprecedented numbers of people for customized and expert work. New York City's well-known 311 system, for example, can respond 24/7 to requests from 8 million New Yorkers on an incredible array of services in more than 100 languages. For residents and city workers alike, services that used to be offered "in line," are now offered more efficiently and effectively "online."

We need to respond as the new 2011 administrations begin to take shape, since implementation will take several years before innovations are mature and able to hold their own. Those taking advantage of tough times to pressure for better government should organize for three major challenges.

Challenge #1: To fully harvest a 21st century government services model. We've already learned a lot about online services, but the new services will not merely be digital. They will increasingly be broadband, with more video now available over YouTube than television, and California finding that video-based driver training works better than the old manuals. The new services will also be wireless, reaching iPhones, Androids and other devices that are becoming the world's primary means of accessing the Internet. Perhaps most important, they will be two-way interactive, not simply flowing from the government to the public. The new model will offer immediate and relatively easy ways for the public to participate in problem-solving. Web and cellphone communications have already contributed to dramatic increases in solved crimes in the District of Columbia.

Extending online services should prove highly valuable and feasible. The new services should be organized to capture huge economies of scale. Thus key funding should come from the federal level to ensure greater flexibility for work on integration across program and jurisdictional boundaries, with operations hosted largely at the state level, and with cloud-based delivery consumed largely at the local level.

Challenge #2: To continue creating a 21st century open government model. This will be centered on data sharing and collaboration inside government and with the public. Data that doesn't raise privacy or security concerns should be released in machine readable form, as with mapping mash-ups that knit together locational data tagged through access to the government's GPS satellites. Invitations to participate in making sense of government data and problem-solving should also be expanded, as with apps like WikiMe or ways to mobilize expertise, as in the well-publicized Peer-to-Patent program.

This open government work is newer and more speculative than simply continuing with the creation of online services. But it offers financially feasible and potentially dramatic impacts on the critical problems of productivity, transparency, accountability and public trust.

Challenge #3: To begin creating a 21st century government budgeting and financing model. This work must balance commitments to our aging population against the realities of our global service-based economy. This is a much bigger problem than using IT effectively. But IT-enabled innovations will still be important. Early steps should reform government budgeting in order to search for and provide better decisions for multiyear cross-boundary innovations (very much the kind of infrastructure-related investments needed for the services and open government models above). We also need IT for "self-service" and "volunteer-assisted" services that will rely less on tax-funded government workers.

We can reduce the need for taxes by increasing user charges and public-private partnerships. Perhaps most important, we can shift more of the work from government workers to self-service and volunteer-assisted service options. Technology enables those possibilities, and our economic situation will demand them.

The above challenges are neither Democratic nor Republican. If we come together to solve them, we can use our most powerful tool for productivity improvement -- digital technologies -- to fundamentally improve government-wide efficiency, equity and transparency. Tough times and technology capabilities have opened a window. Let's take advantage during the transitions of 2011.