Information in Context

Information in Context

by / March 31, 1999
Aesop gave us the fable of a donkey who, upon hearing grasshoppers chirping, was highly enchanted and, desiring to possess the same charms of melody, demanded to know what sort of food they lived on to give them such beautiful voices. They replied, "The dew." The donkey resolved that he would live only upon dew, and in a short time died of hunger. Information without context isn't worth much, even to a donkey.

The importance of context is something I have thought a great deal about since September, when I left the Washington Department of Information Services to become Tucson's director of information technology. Soon after I arrived, I began to understand that the weather wasn't the only thing that had changed. I left behind a state government and a legislative process focused on broad policy objectives for a local government that, by definition, is focused on delivery of day-to-day government services. That's because local government is so close to the people it serves. Every one of us drives on our local streets, drinks from our kitchen faucet, sets out the garbage and counts on the police and fire departments to be there in a hurry when we need them.

The organization I now lead is full of promise and potential, but the organization I left behind is the best of its kind. Better than anywhere else, the state of Washington understands information technology in a political context. The wisdom of that approach has twice been recognized with The Progress & Freedom Foundation's "Digital State" awards. Local CIOs can learn a lot from Washington about the importance of looking past the technology to its role in the governance process.

The governance process for a state CIO means dealing with perhaps a hundred legislators, multiple committees, committee staff, caucus staff, lobbyists, media, a governor's policy staff and advisers, vendors and agency technology managers. We at the local level deal with a mayor, maybe a city manager, a handful of council members and the public. If we are lucky, as I am, we have a capable technology department to support us, and we have a few knowledgeable friends situated throughout city government and the community.

Because local processes make us more autonomous, we have a special responsibility to explain change in the context of the community's hopes and even fears. An elderly Tucsonan asked me at a community meeting if the year-2000 crisis meant she would starve to death. She was afraid that the food distribution system would collapse and her neighborhood grocery store would be empty. When I was in state government, the year-2000 situation was discussed and debated in terms of millions of dollars for remediation and how best to use thousands of state employees to ensure government programs continued to operate. We didn't spend much time discussing the possible starvation of a little old lady.

Likewise, in Washington, we spent a great deal of effort discussing commercial access to government electronic records. That meant defining a public- policy framework for access to huge electronic databases like the drivers' license records. After almost a year of working with the governor, legislators and advocacy groups, we produced a 70-page bound report, complete with appendices. When I got to Tucson, I quickly found that access to government records means a fellow who lives on the 1200 block of S. Wright Road wants to see planning and permit information so he will know why his sidewalk is being dug up.

As local-government CIOs, we are community leaders who must do more than manage the data center, the network and the technicians. We need to be involved with business, education and other government organizations to ensure that change made possible by information technology is appropriately understood, planned for and exploited. Engineers can explain what technology is. System managers can explain what it does. But we must explain how technology can be used to further a community's political agenda. We must explain how we can use the tools of technology to improve even the way we dig up sidewalks.

In successful communities, that improvement will come from examining the way we organize ourselves to deliver service. It will come from investing in information technology infrastructure that creates connections that have never existed before. It will come if we find the courage and the political will to change the things we must change to ensure that each citizen sees a government organized to effectively meet his or her individual needs.

Courage and political will don't just happen. They come from understanding. They result in a willingness to take appropriate risks. As public-sector technology professionals, we have an obligation to work with our community leaders and help them understand the changes being brought about by the digital revolution in public service. Cities, like donkeys, need to understand both the benefits and limitations of dew.

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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.