Getting the Strategic Value Out of Government Information Technology

Technology can solve problems and contribute to solutions. The key is getting IT people into the process at the start.
August 28, 2013 AT 11:00 AM
Jerry Mechlin
By Jerry Mechling  |  Contributor
A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School

For 24 years, I ran a Harvard program in which government information-technology leaders worked together for several days at a time on emerging problems. At the end of those sessions, which assembled people from all over the world, a common comment was, "Well, at least I don't work for the U.S. federal government!" They were referring to the difficulty of getting a critical mass of leaders to commit to handling the risks required for major IT-driven problem-solving.

The big benefits of IT occur when digital information enables government workers to change how they work -- by reaching the public through 311 customer-service systems, for example, or by tackling challenges through "stat" or other problem-solving and accountability systems. That kind of innovation is difficult -- even impossible -- when senior program managers and elected leaders are positioned too far away from the IT staff, as they typically are in larger governments at every level.

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When IT staff and ideas can't get into the problem-solving game, they can't make much of a contribution. As a result, many government-technology managers still are stuck in old "support center" roles. They are not expected to solve big problems, only to help operate new programs after they have been approved. IT is told, in effect, to stick to its knitting.

But there are ways to bring IT in on the big issues earlier in the process. Here are five routes:

Economic development: Governments that take job creation and economic development seriously must, in today's world, start with information infrastructure and digital services. With manufacturing long globalized, service jobs now are being moved to places that can supply digitally capable workers supported by trustworthy, Internet-based collaboration. For an example of the kind of dramatic growth that is possible, look at Singapore. Based largely on government-developed digital infrastructure and services, Singapore has attracted global corporations and progressed from a per-capita income of $511 a year in 1965 to more than $56,000 in 2010.

Budgeting: The budget process inserts -- or should insert -- a competitive discipline into resource allocation so that more productive ways of reaching goals get more resources over time. It is this need for productivity that makes IT a critical part of budgeting. A government that takes this seriously is Michigan's where, under the leadership of Gov. Rick Snyder and Budget Director John Nixon, technology opportunities are critically examined throughout the budget year. Michigan is one of the few jurisdictions with an innovation fund designed to encourage competition and productivity-enhancing IT proposals.

Advisory groups: From time to time, administrations form internal or external advisory groups on important issues. Such efforts are often organized as new administrations seek to turn campaign promises into legislative and executive programs. The Clinton administration's National Performance Review provided a successful, internally oriented model for innovation. That effort, tapping into practices then emerging throughout the economy and society, provided visibility and support for IT-enabled customer-service and procurement initiatives.

Citizen engagement: A classic government problem is mobilizing support for reform. The bureaucracy is often opposed while the public, even if initially supportive, is famous for losing interest over time. This may be changing, however. Fifteen years ago, IT had a relatively small role in political campaigns, but has since showed its value in raising money and then, in the past two presidential elections, in mobilizing support through crowdsourced campaign work. Potentially important efforts are now taking place to translate campaign lessons into ongoing citizen-engagement and open-government initiatives.

Crises: Nothing gets attention like a crisis, whether it's a long-lasting recession, federal spending decisions forced by sequestration or the challenges of providing expensive government services to an aging population. After the Berlin Wall fell and the "peace dividend" became a force in policy discussions, the Pentagon's financial systems underwent dramatic standardization and expansion; IT initiatives that had gotten nowhere before suddenly found an open door. Crises and other transformative events can be productive opportunities for innovation.

Where IT has been slowest in driving innovation is arguably in government, even though it was historically in government that IT got its start. The Internet, after all, has its origins in government. For IT to play its needed and powerful role today, leaders need to effectively use these "routes in" to apply IT to strategic problems. This means more than simply procuring technology and staffing IT functions productively. What we need now is to bring informed and effective IT people and expertise into the room when the big issues are being tackled.