Of Patriots, Prophets and Fools

Friction is still what makes America famous.

by / July 1, 2002
"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.

The expression "public sector IT community" has worked its way into our vocabulary even though, in many cases, it remains a euphemism that is used to mask friction, grease squeaky wheels, and disguises the failure to catalyze the kind of coalition its name implies. That will not do. Not if we take seriously this community's responsibility as stewards of the critical infrastructure on which public health and safety rely.

IT governance assumes friction or tension in the system. Without that tension, we are left with no one to push back on bad ideas -- no one to tell the truth. Without friction, it devolves into Andersen and Enron. Importantly, effective governance safeguards public trust in state IT programs. Unfortunately, in the California case, DoIT didn't. In its wake, other jurisdictions will be well served in having a credible answer to the question, "could that happen here?"

All of that provides a useful reminder that it only feels like we have been doing this for a long time. Most baby boomers were born before automation was applied to government processes. The role of CIO is still written in pencil on some organization charts. And if it were a child, the labor of love called digital government would not yet be in kindergarten.

Governing through technology remains an experiment -- as does the country itself, even 226 years later. There's good news in that. The American Experiment has seen innovation and boondoggles; many more victories than defeats; scandals great and small; economic recessions and the great depression; and, the great war that was to end all wars -- and all those that followed when it didn't. Even when its people stumble, they dust themselves off and begin again. And at least one day a year, they reflect on what Chapin called the America that made America famous.

"Of people who just might understand that how together, yes we can,
make a county better than the one we have made of this land.
How we can make each man, who dares to dream, reaching out his hand,
a prophet or a crazy damn dreamer of a fool."



Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.