A Heads Up On Hype

Overselling a project can have unfortunate consequences, among them earning the distrust of legislators.

Back in 1964, we both went to the New York World's Fair with our respective sets of parents. Both of us have strong memories of the excitement generated in the AT&T pavilion, featuring the latest technology: picture phones.

It seemed clear to us that it was a matter of a few years--maybe even months--before everybody would have a picture phone in their house. Forty years have passed. Do you have a picture phone in your bedroom? Neither do we.

This came to mind a few weeks ago when we participated in a panel discussion at a conference held by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers. The conversation turned to the question of "hype" in information technology. There was general agreement that all too many state and local IT officials have been guilty of overselling the wonderful and seemingly immediate benefits that technological advances would bring their governments.

Back in 1998, for example, Massachusetts officials were openly ebullient about the state's upcoming E-Mall project, a sort of electronic shopping center that would use the Internet to connect buyers and sellers from all levels of state government--and other states as well. Initial results didn't nearly approach expectations, however, and other states quickly pulled out of the project.

The idea is a good one, though, and the state is still trying to make the effort fly. But whether or not Massachusetts eventually has great success, the unpleasant taste of the initial disappointment lingers on.

When we talked with Carolyn Purcell, former CIO of Texas, about this, she sensibly took exception to the use of the word "hype" to describe these kinds of overexpectations. "Hype implies a deliberate effort to oversell," she said. "I think what we see in the public sector is genuine enthusiasm. Regardless, the result is the same--cynicism when benefits fail to materialize."

Harry Hatry of the Urban Institute says, "It seems to be inherent in human genes that, when people are trying to sell a new idea, they play down the limitations."

This isn't just a technology-based phenomenon. A succession of management efforts like total quality management and zero-based budgeting--once labeled as panaceas for everything from budget shortfalls to uninspired clerical workers--have accomplished some very good things, but they sure haven't delivered on all of their projected promises.

More recently, a number of states and cities announced that they were moving toward performance-based budgeting. The very phrase is not just overly hopeful but distinctly hype-full. While budgeting can and should be informed by performance information, calling it "performance-based" implies that there can--or should--be some kind of automatic connection between actual results and future spending. Since that simply doesn't happen in the real world, disappointments inevitably ensue.

Over-expectations like this have all sorts of unfortunate consequences, not the least of which is the development of a distrustful, and sometimes even antagonistic, mindset among legislators when the next new idea comes along. It's really a pretty short leap from the idea that some new ideas don't deliver to the erroneous notion that nothing new ever really works.

This ethos is most dangerous when it infects the people who authorize spending. "Legislators invest in credible proposals," Purcell says. "If we can't project and consistently deliver measurable benefits, investments will dry up."

Hatry points out another painful side effect. For years, he's been warning other management experts to avoid hype. "When problems arise, opposition people love to make the point that it's been oversold," he told us. "The initial implementation of new ideas is often weak, and overselling it gives an opportunity for some managers, the press and elected officials to hammer the innovation."

One major admission here: We, and many of our counterparts in the press, are a big part of the problem. A little over a decade ago, for example, we published a magazine article in which we ballyhooed the efforts in the state of Illinois to keep "expenses neatly in line with budgets." The example we gave at the time was the state's triumph over rising Medicaid bills. We quoted an Illinois budget officer happily explaining how his state could accurately predict Medicaid costs and make sure the budget had enough money to pay for them. Caseloads and changes in state law "are all things that can be priced out fairly accurately," we quoted him as saying.

You know where that story goes. Last spring, the state was more than six months behind in some of its Medicaid payments, and some pharmacists were refusing to fill prescriptions for new Medicaid patients.

On reflection, we're resolved to avoid hyping success stories in the future. Just don't ask us about our kids.

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