In Lean Times, Information and Communication Technology Has Come Full Circle (Opinion)

Information and communication technology budgets must do more with less.

by / May 28, 2010

The '60s band, The Byrds, famously reminded the world of something that Bible readers already knew: "To everything there is a season." (Turn, turn, turn.)

In thinking through the changes that have taken place in our state and local institutions since I began my public-service career in the early 1990s, I am struck by the notion that information and communication technology (ICT) budgets have come full circle.

In the early '90s, those of us who were involved with state and local ICT were pioneers and inventors. We were riding the wave of the technological revolution and bringing tools and capabilities to government unlike anything ever before imagined. Times were good, and we were "doing more with more."

In the mid- to late '90s, things started to normalize a little and much of the proverbial "low-hanging fruit" of system and process improvement had been at least initially harvested. The heady enthusiasm of technological "revolution" began to give way as ICT became a more routine part of public-service delivery, and the challenge became how to "do better with the same" levels of funding.

The economic expansion of the first half of the 2000s generated escalating property and sales taxes revenues that encouraged many local elected leaders to support major policy initiatives and capital projects at the same time they cut taxes in response to "excessive government surpluses." ICT was viewed as a necessary but routine business expense, and it was time to start doing "more with less" as funds were reprioritized.

Now we're living in the shadow of foreclosed houses and the bailout of financial giants that were "too big to fail." Unemployment recently reached a 26-year high and just about every community has seen significant decline in home prices. Local government budgets are being forced to accommodate double-digit reductions. Lucky public employees are being forced to take mandatory salary and benefit reductions. Unlucky ones are joining the ranks of job seekers. Many communities are just now coming to grips with the idea that, for a while, government is going to be "doing less with less."

As hard as it is to see programs eliminated, facilities closed and employees laid off, I think the toughest days may still be ahead. In 2009, federal government borrowing funded the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and saw significant funds passed through to state and local government. Most of that money is scheduled for delivery during 2010, and it will help mask the true difficulty many states and communities are in, but only for a little while.

The federal government cannot continue borrowing at its current rate, and sustainability payments to state and local government are not going to continue. It's very likely that, in response, local government will be forced to reduce services and further increase or implement new taxes and fees. We're coming full circle to a point where government will be left with no choice but to "do less with more" until the bills are paid, the unfunded liabilities are covered and financial stability is re-established. That will be hard for people to understand and accept.

If government is going to be doing less and people paying more, it's absolutely critical that it does the most important things very well. To help, ICT professionals must once again think like pioneers and inventors, inspire their organizations, and find the tools, processes and strategies to help create community understanding and consensus, and ensure that during this time, safety, security, health and education are built up and not broken down. (Turn, turn, turn.)


Todd Sander Executive Director, Center for Digital Government

Todd Sander is Executive Director of the Center for Digital Government, and is responsible for driving the strategic direction and development of the Center's programs and for providing thought leadership and hands-on expertise in expanding the Center’s services to both government and industry.