"It was the town that made America famous....

Six traffic lights, seven cops, and all the streets kept clean....

They were the folks that made America famous.

Our local fire department stocked with short haired volunteers ...."

The opening lines of Harry Chapin's 1974 protest song about the tensions in a changing America resonate in ways probably not originally intended as the country marks its first Independence Day since the 9-11 attacks. On first listen, the song disguises its underlying optimism about the country's ability to find new expressions of its core values and virtues, despite the friction along the way.

Ten months later, it is useful to reflect on what has changed -- and that which has not -- in the public sector information technology community since the images of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks were indelibly stamped into the American consciousness.

There is both pride and humility in sharing the calling of public service with the people who made America famous -- the fire fighters, police officers and other first responders who earned the public trust with their lives.

There is also little tolerance for those who fail to safeguard that public trust -- witness the reaction to the unwinding of an ill-advised software-licensing contract in California. The Sacramento Bee reported on the reaction of a 32-year veteran of state service on the day the story broke -- "This is flat ridiculous. I'm sick of it." -- as the paper documented the doomed deal's fuzzy math, attendant firings, suspensions, allegations of document shredding and pledges to return the suspect $25,000 campaign contribution.

The disappointment and anger over the debacle splashed across state lines. Seven hundred miles away, Emilio Cantu, a retired state senator who had painstakingly overseen the development of Washington's technology program over the last two decades, concluded simply, "This taints all of us, all for a lousy $25,000."

The pioneers of public sector technology programs remind us that it is a game best played on offence because the old axiom is right -- if you're explaining, you're losing.

Self destruction is the stuff of infamy. Creative destruction -- a term that originated with Austrian-American economist Joseph Alois Schumpeter early last century -- is what made America famous. At a time when it seems that the safe thing is to do nothing, this lesson of economic history is that such an approach is also deadly. Creative destruction celebrates friction-driven innovation and reformation -- and can serve as a catalyst for renewing the core functions of government.

And all of this is working itself out in the laboratory of state and local government.

City of Tucson CIO Todd Sander is convinced of the nobility and necessity of winning at all costs in homeland security.

"If not this, what?," he asks, "If not now, when?"

Winning in this arena both requires and causes systemic changes in the way government works. It also changes the starting point in thinking about digital government. No longer is it just about citizen convenience or internal efficiencies. A recent Hart-Teeter poll reported that 90 percent of Americans believe that government's use of the Internet will help with intelligence in keeping communities safe -- affirming Steve Kolodney's observation that homeland security is digital government with national purpose.

It is a worthy pursuit, but there is much work to do. And it begins with catching up on bills that have gone unpaid for a long time.

The response to 9-11 has generated sufficient friction that the discussion of information technology security has moved from one of "whether" to "how" -- yet security investments are still viewed as extraordinary, and not simply the cost of doing business in a dangerous world.

Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer