The "Public Value" Yardstick

by / January 31, 1995
Indiana's Data Processing Oversight Commission (DPOC) is a centralized organization responsible for oversight of large information technology (IT) projects and their related procurements, as well as developing statewide strategies for computing technologies.

DPOC is staffed with IT professionals and led by Les Miller, a political appointee. Miller seems equally adept at political management and traditional organizational management. While Miller does not have a highly technical background his close-knit staff is very experienced and capable technically. DPOC approval is necessary for any substantial IT-related procurement.

Thomas Guevara, assistant secretary at Indiana's Family & Social Services Administration (SSA) directs that agency's Office of Information Technology Services. SSA is the state data center's largest customer. They have the largest employee base of any department and have some of the biggest IT projects in the state.

Miller and Guevara have different perspectives on standardization efforts. In large measure their divergent views are dictated by the differences in the mission that each is responsible for implementing.

Miller is interested in adopting standards that will allow for greater sharing of data and application functionality across traditional agency and departmental barriers. He is interested in insulating the state from the impact of rapidly changing technologies by developing practices that promote platform independence in his applications.

He is also interested in sharing efforts with other states by promoting the availability of reusable "public domain" applications in functional areas that are common from state to state. He is interested in an orderly and rapid move to client/server technologies to meet a mandate that keeps Indiana from expanding its mainframe capacity. These objectives are embodied in a soon-to-be-published information technology architecture.

Guevara is wary of standards. He feels that technology changes at such a rapid pace that today's visionary standard is tomorrow's unreasonable restriction. His department makes wide use of systems integrators (SI) to implement, and in some cases maintain, large complex systems, and he feels that state-imposed standards limit the SI vendor in their business choices for delivery of contracted services.

Guevara has a significant investment in legacy systems that are mainframe based and is in no big hurry to rewrite those systems for client/server, even though he is committed to doing all of his new development in a distributed architecture. Guevara also feels that, as the largest IT user in the state, his agency will be required to absorb the lion's share of the costs of implementing a statewide standard.

The tension embodied in this situation are common in any public sector environment where valid objectives are at odds. How does a public sector management team determine when the focused needs of a specific project or department should be subordinate to or take precedence over the strategic needs of a the whole state as an enterprise?


The yardstick that should be used in this regard is one of maximizing "public value". As an example, if the data being captured and stored - as part of a departmental function or application - has value to other statewide entities, then there is tremendous public value in using standard data modeling and administration rules that will allow for easy access to that data by other authorized entities. The public value of having that information accessible should be measured as superior to the individual project's efficiencies. If, on the other hand, a project is insulated and its outputs are uniquely specific to that function, the enforcement of a broad standard is less imperative, and the public value is better served by focusing on project efficiency alone.

The State of Indiana's DPOC has done an excellent job of defining the public value of various aspects of information technology practices. It has spelled out principles such as creating a high service level to its citizens, identifying "shareability" as a goal, utilizing open systems as a way of increasing competitiveness among the state's vendors, of evolutionary rather than revolutionary change, process improvement as a critical step before building systems, and making information more accessible to the state's constituents.

There are other principles embodied in its architecture that are equally compelling, as well as specific standards that will embody those principles. But the architecture also recognizes the needs of individual project and departmental managers to achieve "organizational efficiencies, effectiveness and responsiveness."

The statement of these principles and their adoption by the statewide IT community will provide the definition of public value for the citizens of Indiana, and will provide that all-important yardstick to determine when to apply the defined and developing standards. So long as the standards are principle-based rather than technology-based, and so long as they are flexibly implemented and constantly reviewed, I believe that both Guevara and Miller will be able to achieve their individual objectives.

For those states who have not yet appointed a CIO, or created a leadership entity like DPOC, I believe the tensions between strategic and tactical objectives will be paralyzing. For states like Indiana, which have the structure and principled and effective leadership, the natural tensions between project objectives and strategic objectives will be resolved in a way that provides for better information systems implementations overall.

Larry Singer - an industry expert on strategic computing and a GT columnist - completed a senior executive's fellow program in public policy development and management from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Larry Singer Contributing Writer