IT and the Perils of Hunkering Down

Now — not after the November elections — is the time to prepare to leverage technology to improve productivity across government.
March 28, 2012 AT 11:00 AM
Jerry Mechlin
By Jerry Mechling  |  Contributor
A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School

Many of the people who manage government are pretty much hunkered down, waiting for the November election to see where to head next. Given an electoral mandate (all winners will interpret the November results as a mandate), post-election decisions will result in a new balance between expenditures and revenues.

Whatever that balance, and whatever the impact on the size of government, all governments will desperately need to improve productivity. Governments will continue to be forced to do less with less, and probably for a long time. That reality will require service production to be as close as possible to the global best-practices curve. With governments running from a third to half of the various economies throughout the world, those that lag too far behind that curve risk becoming an unbearable burden. To improve productivity, governments must adopt new technology-enabled divisions of labor and workflow.

The good news is that governments can do this. The path forward is difficult, but it's reasonably well blazed and safe. However, for many governments, progress will require shifting how they think about IT and innovation.

Today, many or most governments look at IT solely as a cost center. They worry about rising IT expenditures and the many projects that have visibly failed to deliver. So it's important that the IT community improve its project management. IT needs to be a cost-effective and reliable investment.

But the real challenge is that IT also must improve productivity in the rest of government. Information services comprise roughly 5 percent of government budgets. But the 20 percent and greater productivity boost typically available by shifting to IT-enabled methods can be widely applied in the 95 percent of government that falls outside of direct IT services. This is where the private sector has found IT to be strategic. And this is where government also has the opportunity to reap major benefits, now that the pressures for change are taking hold.

Given the need for IT as a productivity catalyst, what should be the post-election priorities, and how can we do what's needed now to make them happen?

Whatever the elections hold, the "hunker down" approach is rapidly becoming dangerous. Having worked with a number of leaders on these issues, three guidelines have emerged as critical: catch up, get some allies and leverage standard procedures. Note that each of these requires leaders to stick their necks out and get into the politics of change.

Catch up. Over the past decade and more, many governments have invested in technology and created a growing gap between those on the leading edge and the rest. The good news is that progress now is not a huge risk for those in the middle and rear of the pack. Replicate successful strategies. To be part of a more productive future, climb out of the foxhole and catch up with:

• Online services and self-service, especially in education, public safety and internal services such as financial management and human resources.

• Open government, sharing data and encouraging internal and external collaboration and problem-solving.

• Smart government, using the wealth of faster and deeper feedback for better transparency and also for sustainable "cross-boundary" relationships.

Get some allies. To attack the 95 percent of government not in the IT domain, IT leaders must work well with other leaders. CIOs need to get on same page with CEOs, COOs, department heads and budget directors. Many general managers in government incorrectly see anything involving IT as an "IT problem," when the real issue is almost always change management. General managers need to learn that IT-enabled reforms can be implemented much faster than previously, with visible deliverables before the next election.

Leverage standard procedures. Governments run on standard operating procedures. Beginning soon after the November elections — if not before — governments will need to act via:

• Recruitment procedures, making sure that new CIOs and department heads are selected not only for their loyalty and policy expertise but also for their ability to manage the behavioral changes that IT-enabled productivity requires.

• Communications procedures, using digital information and tools to reach internal staff and external stakeholders with engaging new forms of information and collaboration.

• The budget process, making sure that the focus is not only on annual program-by-program adjustments but also on the multi-year, cross-program innovations that offer the best targets for productivity.

Hunkering down is always tempting when elections approach. But now is the time to set in motion the productivity improvements that government needs to protect society and its own legitimacy. Are you ready? Tick, tick, tick. ...