A reputation for technological incompetence still casts a gloomy shadow over government. The American public, which government works so diligently to serve, largely continues to perceive government, in general, as a ponderous thing, to say nothing of public-sector IT, in particular. It's a cruel irony that often the better an agency serves the public, the more likely it is to be invisible to average citizens.
But the times are a changin'. There's a palpable sense of excitement within the public-sector IT community, despite the miserable economic climate. For example, global attention is being paid to the appointment of Vivek Kundra as federal CIO. Whether the visionary Washington, D.C., chief technology officer will be able to translate his talents to a national stage remains to be seen. But what's certain is that government technology seems on its way out from that gloomy shadow in which it's toiled so long, and in to the spotlight.
Of course, exciting times don't necessarily equate to good times. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act could herald a golden age for public-sector IT - or be its undoing. Technology, and the men and women who support it, will be called upon to do many things that have to this point existed only speculatively. Smart grids, smart buildings, truly intelligent transportation systems - the stimulus bill seems to have lived up to its moniker by stimulating a resurgence of the notion that technology is a cure-all. As government IT occupies a larger piece of the public consciousness, the pressure to perform as promised will be enormous.
But such pressure is often the catalyst for great achievement. In March, Microsoft held its annual U.S. Public Sector CIO Summit at company headquarters in Redmond, Wash. IT professionals from all levels of government convened to spearhead the challenges that await them. No longer content to merely react, attendees sought ideas and inspiration for the road ahead. In the crowd there was an air of anticipation at the chance for government IT to shed its status as cumbersome and antiquated. But underlining the eagerness was a solemn sense of responsibility. Indeed, technology will play a significant role in the nation's recovery. But should recovery efforts fail, the results will almost certainly be catastrophic.
For government IT, this is the beginning of a long and winding road. The going will be tough, but greatness is rarely born under pleasant circumstances.