Editor’s Note: Mark W.S. Chun is the director of the Center for Applied Research and associate professor of information systems at Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management, and a professor in the Executive MBA program.
In May 2009, shortly after taking office, President Obama hired the nation’s first chief information officer, Vivek Kundra, who asked a very important question: “How can we leverage the power of technology to make sure the country is moving in the right direction?” While Kundra’s short stint as the nation’s CIO — just two and a half years on the job — wasn’t long enough to accomplish all he set out to do, his ambition to revolutionize technology in the public sector was absolutely worth pursuing.
The role of technology and the public-sector CIO has evolved during the past 20 years. The position has expanded to become a highly valued and necessary position. While early generation public-sector CIOs — the ‘behind-the-scene“ technicians — focused primarily on maintaining technology infrastructure, today CIOs are required to be more strategic and focus on driving innovation within the complexities of government.
According to The New York Times, “the federal government spends about $80 billion a year on information technology, more than any corporation.” The U.S. government has made progress in integrating technology between the public and private sectors, especially in the area of emergency management. For example, earlier this year federal officials announced a pilot project in which some cell phone users in New York City and Washington, D.C., will be able to receive alerts by text message in the event of a national or regional emergency.
While we have made great strides to increase collaboration between government and the private sector, technology hasn’t revolutionized the way our government does business to the extent that’s possible. One reason is that politics and bureaucracy often interfere with information sharing and inhibit the integration of technology into government. There are information silos within government that make it difficult to effectively develop broad-based public-private partnerships to spur innovation. This mindset must change.
The U.S. can look at other countries for best practices. Around the globe, several pan-Asian governments are leading the way in driving innovation. The governments in Taiwan, Singapore and Japan, for example, collaborate closely with the private sector on multiple levels, allowing for easy information sharing as well as increased efficiencies and productivity.
Japan, in particular, has taken technology integration to a whole new level. According to an article in The Washington Post, Japanese convenience stories truly are a convenience. “At Happy Lawson, a kid-friendly [convenience] store that overlooks Yokohama Harbor, you can buy fresh sushi and carbon offsets, pay income tax and change diapers, book airplane tickets and sip vodka coolers,” the article revealed. Nearly any bill in Japan — utility, phone, cable or tax — can be paid at a Japanese convenience store. About $80 billion worth were paid that way last year.
In Taiwan, the government has created a Smart Bus program that makes the public transportation system more rider-friendly. In Chiayi County, Taiwan, buses are equipped with GPS so the operation center can track and estimate what time the buses will reach stops. The Smart Bus systems also alleviate long waits because traffic conditions are reported over the GPS system.
Furthermore, Singapore has created a five-year plan to integrate social media and mobile technology. Singapore’s plan, called eGov2015, includes a mobile government site designed for smartphones that will make it easier for residents and businesses to use government websites. The government also created a new data-sharing website called Data.gov.sg, which brings together more than 5,000 data sets from more than 50 government agencies. With this new data-sharing website, constituents in Singapore can create their own applications as well as search for mobile applications that use government data.
The U.S. is capable of introducing similar innovations. Americans are more educated and skilled at using technology than ever before. Public-sector CIOs in the U.S. have the opportunity to embrace and implement new technologies so that government officials can better listen and respond to their constituents. Change will originate from the outside by allowing constituents to identify the top priorities. Opening up the lines of communication through the use of advanced technology creates a better relationship between government and the people it serves, and a safer and more productive society.
Flash-forward to present day from 2009 and the U.S. is poised to benefit from technological innovation. On Aug. 4, 2011, Obama appointed Steven VanRoekel as the nation’s next CIO. VanRoekel’s appointment comes at an important time for our nation. Technology-driven best practices under his leadership could help the public sector set policies that inspire private-sector collaboration and game-changing innovations.