By Thornton May
Futurist, Senior Advisor with GP, Executive Director & Dean - IT Leadership Academy
I seek to revise how we think about government IT and the IT professionals who work in the government. I believe the effective practice of government depends on the innovative practice of IT. I consider the ideas currently floating around regarding government IT to be misguided and ill informed. More importantly, unless we start thinking about government IT less toxically, the practice of government – which now touches just about every part of our existence – will continue to be less than optimal. If we are to have a future we want to live in we need to have a government we all can be proud of. For this to happen we need to re-think government IT.
An Age of Unreasonable Expectations
We live in a wondrous age. Our expectations of what constitutes acceptable service are shaped by the experiences created at Google/Bing [sub-second response to every query]; Amazon/Netflix [free shipping and demand clairvoyance]; UPS [we know where our stuff is]; and Disney [magical experiences which place us at the center]. The bar regarding service is being placed very high. Citizens expect government service levels to replicate those found at Google, Amazon, UPS and Disney. Is this a reasonable expectation?
The history of government is chock-a-block full of irrational expectations on the part of citizens. Following the publication of Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus’ Essays on the Principle of Population  in which the curate of Okewood in Surrey opined about the consequences of a geometrical increase in human population [1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32] juxtaposed with an arithmetic increase in food resources [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6], several editorialists suggested that an Act of Parliament be passed to enlarge the earth’s surface. When there is a problem, government is expected to fix it.
A Bad Performance Patch
If one were to review the history of government IT I think it safe to say that the past 18 months would probably rank close to the top regarding highly visible, hugely expensive and should have been avoided IT foul ups. Two government IT SNAFUs are top-of-mind: the debacle which was the launch of the healthcare.gov site and the gong show which is the lack of competent electronic records management at the IRS. In the IRS situation the crash of a hard drive is thought to have apparently and most conveniently wiped out evidence of improprieties and wrong doings.
My point is that – yes, there are headline-making instances of epic IT incompetence in the government – but these instances are not representative of the hard work, the great work being done by the 2.2 million federal civilian workers and the 19.4 million at state and local levels. [There are approximately 108 million people working in the private sector].
Time to Pay Attention
I have over the course of the last year collaborated with a variety of IT executives working at the federal, state, and local level. I have been impressed by their intellect, energy, and integrity. I have also been fascinated by the systemic challenges associated with making world class IT happen in the fish bowl which is our government.
In a democracy, it is generally assumed that citizen preferences inform public policy. Citizen oversight requires an active and informed electorate, yet the American public [and in the United Kingdom] is only sporadically attentive to and knowledgeable about public sector IT practices. This has to change.
Go out and hug a government IT professional and have him or her tell you about the challenges they face.