Have you ever thought, "If it were up to me ...?" I'm sure you have. I know I have, especially recently. This year, people in the United States spend many hours listening to presidential candidates from across the political spectrum talk about how things could be, should be and will be if voters leave it up to them.
Candidates have more than enough to talk about: the economy, health care, education, taxes, among other things. However, America's continuing military involvement in Iraq has served to divide and define the candidates. Each of them makes a forceful case for how things will be when they're elected. Listening to the candidates debate, it occurred to me that regardless of your views about the past, present and future of American military policy, there are important and valuable lessons to be learned and some basic principles we can apply as local government officials when looking at large and complicated technology projects.
First, despite the way it sometimes seems, the initial planning and approval process for a major technology project may prove to be the easy part. At the beginning, the task is defining the need, identifying an approach and securing a commitment for the initial resources.
Embedded within the plans are assumptions about how long it will take, how well defined the issues are, the commitment of partners and participants, and the benefits the organization and community will receive. Experience has repeatedly shown, however, that once a project is under way, everyone's understanding of those things will likely change.
America's current military involvement began with a shared vision, but it quickly became apparent that sustaining that vision beyond the initial push would be a major challenge for the Bush administration. Hindsight being perfect, we now know that officials failed to fully appreciate what it would take to rebuild and repair the physical and organizational infrastructure in Iraq following the initial combat and to deal with the historical and political realities of that region. There was an assumption that Iraqi citizens would embrace democracy, and quickly and efficiently organize themselves into a new government. The original plans proved inadequate once the realities were better understood. Something initially viewed as quickly achievable has required a much greater sustained effort.
The federal government isn't the only one prone to underestimating the effort necessary to successfully execute an initial plan. Local governments sometimes don't adequately establish and maintain citizen and executive support for their efforts. Transformative changes to service delivery through enterprise resource management systems, community broadband infrastructures and citizen/customer relationship management systems are some of the high-profile activities that have politically withered because of extended schedules and lack of resources.
How do you increase the likelihood that your major initiatives will weather the uncertainties that will occur over time?
First, realize the challenge you're wrestling with or the opportunity you're looking to seize is probably one that someone, somewhere else has also identified. Geography, demographics and economics may vary among communities, but the services people need and expect from their local government remain fairly consistent. You can use this to your advantage.
The Digital Communities program has created and organized a community of peers and potential partners to help and advise those seeking to use technology to initiate changes and improvements for their residents. Innovators and leaders in those communities have learned the secrets for successfully navigating adversity. As part of your project, engage other communities that are familiar with issues that may be new to you. You can learn much from both their mistakes and successes.
Second, conduct a realistic assessment of your organization's capabilities and resources. Do you have the organizational capacity and human and financial capital to successfully implement the project? This is important whether you plan to develop something in-house or acquire it externally.
Wilderness survival training dictates that you must collect three times the amount of firewood you think you'll need to make it through the night. Local government project dollars aren't firewood, but underestimating the true cost of success can be fatal to projects and careers.
Third, don't make assumptions about how new infrastructure, applications or systems will be viewed by others. It has been said of America's activities in Iraq that democracy can't be given like a gift. The same is true of major technology initiatives. If there isn't a well defined, broadly recognized need and well understood commitment to support and use the system, it is unlikely to be successful. If at the beginning you don't have three times the support you think you'll need, walk away until the opportunity becomes more important to more people. Otherwise, you may find yourself alone when things don't go as expected.
Finally, recognize that despite your best efforts and planning, things will go wrong. Prepare yourself, your staff and the executive and political supporters of your projects in advance for this eventuality. As the project unfolds, no matter what happens or why, have the courage to always tell the truth. Realistic preparation and honesty will help ensure you can sustain the support you need to be successful. Our political and military leaders didn't do enough to prepare the American people for the level of sacrifice it would take to sustain our efforts in Iraq. As a result, many people believe those leaders either failed to be honest and forthright with information or were incompetent in their assessments. Eventually citizen perception becomes, at the very least, political reality.
And while the evening news may focus primarily on the national and international political reality, the day-to-day quality of life for most Americans is influenced more by the policies and actions of local governments than the feds, and that comes with its own political reality. The challenge for local government officials is to communicate with the public that the challenges faced by our communities in coming decades won't be overcome with quick fixes. Sustainable growth, intelligent transportation, increased economic opportunity, improved education, environmental stewardship, renewed infrastructure, and emergency preparedness and response are only a few issues local government leaders must address.
These are long-term problems that require long-term solutions. They are complicated and interwoven issues. Action in any one area must also consider the possible implications for all other areas. Local government officials no longer have the luxury of simply resolving isolated problems. A community's health, success and competitiveness are defined by how well its leaders and members collaborate on increasingly global challenges and opportunities.
The most successful communities are those that have chosen to become digital, using information and communication technology to unite policymakers and citizens in a governance partnership. By developing a shared and unifying vision of their preferred future supported by regular information sharing, they can create a culture of sustained commitment that lets them make real progress on critical initiatives.
As a local government official, it's your responsibility to ensure an appropriate and realistic foundation has been laid for a sufficient and sustainable commitment before undertaking any major project. This time it's up to you: How will you respond on your organization's and community's behalf?