Leadership's Challenge

When it comes to solving the problems of state and local governments and delivering services to citizens, cutting-edge technology isn't the answer.
by | September 2007

When it comes to solving the problems of state and local governments and delivering services to citizens, cutting-edge technology isn't the answer.

That was the somewhat surprising consensus among the diverse group of public officials gathered in Chicago for Governing's Managing Technology 2007 conference. One after another, a wide range of public officials involved in technology decision-making reiterated that it's not having the most innovative technology that's important--it's the proper management of that technology that helps governments to innovate and improve services.

"We have the technology we need," said Teri Takai, president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers and the director of the Michigan Department of Information Technology. "What we need is the leadership, policy, practices and the will to use that technology to help improve the way we operate."

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who welcomed the Governing conferees to his city, agreed. "Technology has not turned out to be the magic bullet we thought it would be," he said, "but it is a valuable tool to help our cities deliver services more efficiently." Vermont Governor James Douglas made an even more forceful case for the importance of government's effective use of technology: "We need to innovate if we're going to be successful in the global 21st-century economy."

Daley's message comes through loud and clear in another Chicago initiative: its 311 system. A growing number of cities have developed 311 phone lines that function as "one-stop shops" for citizens with non-emergency needs and questions about government services. But Chicago is at the vanguard of using the data from its 311 system to improve city management.

"The funny thing is that it's based on very simple technology-- landline telephones," said Ted O'Keefe, Chicago's 311 city services director. "It's the use of that technology on the back end that makes all the difference."

"It's about getting timely, accurate data in the hands of administrators who can make a difference and actually reallocate resources," said Lydia Murray, who currently serves as chief of staff to the director of the Chicago Transit Authority.

There's enormous potential for a city that effectively uses the data from its 311 system. "This will be the most significant project your city or county has undertaken in 10 or 20 years," said Michael Major, director of 311 operations for the city of Denver.

Of course, big projects like that can be challenging to manage. Just ask Los Angeles County, which is implementing a multibillion-dollar enterprise resource planning system it began in 2002. There were some inherent obstacles. With more than 100,000 public employees, L.A. County is larger than 42 states. And different county agencies each have their own IT departments.

The county began its ERP implementation by having each department describe its needs. Very soon, it became clear that trying to address everything at once would never work. The county realized it needed to break the project into several phases. "Multi-year, multimillion- dollar projects fail," said L.A. County Chief Information Officer Jon Fullinwider. That's why breaking L.A. County's ERP project into distinct smaller parts was key.

The county also found that the project was more than an IT implementation. Although the project started in the technology department, it moved to the Auditor-Controller's Office. "If you want to have a failure," Fullinwider said, "have your technology department be in charge of implementing ERP." That's because such enterprise-wide technology projects ultimately aren't about software or systems, he said. "Fundamentally, ERP success is not about technology. It's about executive leadership and good management."

Too many governments, however, still chase the newest technology, thinking later about how to best use and manage it. Gene Akers, now senior director for the Center for Advanced Technologies at Auburn University-Montgomery, and former assistant director for the Alabama Department of Finance, warned that "you see so many places putting e- government façades over their existing business processes."

"Agencies don't take the time to examine their business processes to see how technology can really improve the way things work…You're dealing with the way people have done business for many, many years. That's why it takes strong leadership."

Minnesota CIO Gopal Khanna underscored that point as he discussed his state's initiative to break down silos and improve its efficiency and ability to deliver service. "Two percent of my job is about technology. Ninety-eight percent is about culture change."

So how do you bring about culture change? It comes down to people-- and communication. "We've been putting too much emphasis on technology and not enough on encouraging the creativeness of our staff," Fullinwider said.

It isn't easy. "We get these people in the room together, and they're talking," said Metro Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell. "But they're still people, and there are real financial decisions being made. You have this concern of falling back into this world where everybody rows his own boat."

Takai agreed. "It's unrealistic to expect that collaboration on cross-boundary issues is going to be easy… If, as a leader, you want to be the best-liked person in the room, don't go out leading cross- boundary initiatives." And yet, those cross-boundary discussions are critical.

"We've got to change the culture of government by putting an emphasis on service," said Russ Saito, the head of the Hawaii Department of Accounting and General Services. "We need to improve the processes for delivering services to citizens--not just beef up new technology."


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