How Government Can Mine the Value of IT

We should use technology to improve what the institution does, building societal value and public support.
January 27, 2016
Jerry Mechlin
By Jerry Mechling  |  Contributor
A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School

Too many governments still are thinking too small about information technology, looking narrowly and downward at IT as "the problem." This diverts attention from how the use of technology can shape organizational strategies.

True, IT itself was the problem when it was expensive, hard to use, and could be applied only to high-volume, highly structured processes such accounting. And marketing hype created uncertainty: How could governments get objective information to realistically assess technology vendors' claims? How could governments keep an IT project from becoming a front-page failure?

Over the decades, however, driven by productivity that doubles every few years, the digital world has dramatically changed. Compared to 1969, when we first landed on the moon, digital tools are now more than a billion times more productive. And users have grown from a small cadre of technology specialists to a near-majority of people with "screen-first" lifestyles. Given the social, economic and political forces of our newly digital world, how can we look more broadly and upward to make and implement smart strategies?

For private-sector companies, strategic choices involve not just technology but issues of institutional capacity, value and support. Companies are under great pressure to improve this strategic triad. There is a similar triad for governments, but there is less pressure for change. As a result, in too many governments issues of IT-enabled capacity, value and support are not getting the attention they need. To succeed in a digital world, governments need to take three fundamental steps:

Develop capacity for digital innovation. This is broader than capacity to select and run good technology. It requires well-supported institutional-change initiatives. While IT planning offers one common venue for development, the key work will typically be done through governmentwide budgets and planning for customer service, productivity and economic development. C-suite attention is required.

New capabilities should focus on both accessible services and self-service. Services that require standing in line for assistance should be largely replaced by online services available anytime and anywhere, and with bundled services -- systems that, for instance, combine all of the permits needed by a business entering a municipality. We've already developed many of these, but not nearly enough. The central concern is learning to use information to improve what the institution does, not just what the IT does. This kind of innovation is emphasized in the comprehensive digital-society strategy developed by the government of the United Kingdom.

Use governmental capacity to measure and create societal value. This is much broader than the value from IT productivity alone. It requires government to make data and analysis available on bigger issues and goals. Can we use more-objective data to assess whether we are getting a good return on income per capita, life expectancy, social equity and citizen satisfaction?

The central concern here is using information to make progress toward the major goals of government. Some governments have been very successful at this. Singapore, in conjunction with "intelligent island" investments in information infrastructure and services, saw annual per-capita income improve from $511 in 1965 to over $56,000 in 2010.

Use newly created value to build financial and public support. This is broader than support for IT expenditures. It requires new sources of IT-related revenue and support from volunteers and crowdsourcing. Much as the private sector is now changing business models to take better advantage of "the attention economy" -- treating human attention as a scarce commodity -- the public sector needs to shift to fees and other non-tax revenues.

The central concern here is developing new business models for government -- systems in which value and production are supported by new revenues and public engagement. While political organization has gone electronic, we've done very little electronically to improve governance. One positive example from many possibilities can be found in the regional 311 systems in which the public helps identify and prioritize problems that need government's attention.

Given the many people today who are powerfully connected to data, processing and networks, the world has changed. Government leaders -- IT executives and otherwise -- need to sense these changes and respond with new strategies, not just new technologies.