June 3, 2004 By Paul W. Taylor
You need not consult the Farmers' Almanac and its 187-year-old formula for long-range forecasts to know it will continue to be politically hot and sticky for public-sector IT organizations trying to move forward while preserving baseline levels of cash, money and workload.
At the risk of immodesty (or reminding you of a teen-slasher film), I know what you should do this summer: Harvest the rewards of good fiscal management, institutionalize contemporary skills in your organizations and get unplugged for at least a little while. All three will be harder to do in the fall than right now, if they can be done later at all.
Harvesting Rewards: One of the historic curiosities of public-sector finance is that unspent balances in appropriated funds revert back to the general fund at the fiscal year's end. Critics often decry year-end spending sprees by public entities, citing examples of extravagant expenditures that waste scarce taxpayer dollars. But that view discounts organizations exercising discipline in their operations all year and retaining a surplus. These are the same organizations that zeroed out their PC refresh allocations to meet budget constraints when the ever tightening spending plans were developed a year ago. Using unspent balances for such purposes now may make purists uncomfortable, but in the current budgetary environment, it amounts to a little earned relief for well managed government agencies that have taken their public stewardship responsibilities seriously.
Institutionalize Contemporary Skills: Government organizations remain reliant on legacy systems (a term that has become unfairly pejorative) to do the heavy lifting of data handling that supports the public's business, while at the same time aggressively pursuing Internet technologies that extend their value and improve service delivery. The two sides of the house are often more separate than they ought to be -- as is the staffing complement. Without putting too fine a point on it, the old guys with seniority are responsible for the old stuff, and the young guys without seniority tend to be responsible for new stuff. Such a staffing approach has broken down as early retirement incentives have taken out the only people who know the legacy systems (the documentation for which is largely in the heads of retirees), while layoffs and resulting waves of bumping end the public-service careers of those who came of age on the Internet.
The tactical approach pursued by New York state and others to codify specific technical skills in job classifications -- down to specific certifications and products in some cases -- provides a check against bumping that inadvertently deskills an organization. Strategically we would do well to think seriously about the makeup of new digital Renaissance men or women. Governmental IT organizations will stand or fall on their ability to develop staff equally conversant in the classical languages (COBOL and FORTRAN) and the competing candidates to be the new lingua franca (Java and .NET).
Get Unplugged: A national survey provides intriguing insight on why the majority of IT professionals did not take a vacation last year, and probably will not again this year. Almost three-quarters (73 percent) of respondents said they dreaded going back to work after a vacation because of an innate belief that things would be a mess. Roughly one-quarter (23 percent) also said their workplace contacted them at least once during their last vacation. The numbers suggest a level of organizational codependency that cannot be solved over the summer. That one will have to wait. In the meantime, and in the name of self-preservation, it may be best just to trade in the cell phone, PDA and pager for a fishing pole and a nice cold beer.
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