Managing Technology

Top-down government is about to be turned on its head.

by , / March 31, 1997
Who Will Lead?

There is a growing feeling in America today that government at all levels is broken -- that it is not adequately addressing the pressing problems of today or anticipating tomorrow's needs. There is also a growing consensus that the core of the problem lies not in the competence or integrity of the vast majority of civil servants, but in the archaic systems in which they labor. This consensus is reflected in the agreement of such political adversaries as Vice President Al Gore and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, both of whom have recently written books characterizing the problem as "industrial-age bureaucracies in an information era."

The solution, on which Gore and Gingrich are also in agreement, is to "run government more like a business," as suggested in Osborne and Gaebler's seminal book on reinventing government. This means focusing on the needs of customers -- that is, citizens -- rather than the priorities of bureaucracy. It means empowering workers at every level to use their discretion and common sense in resolving problems and issues brought by their "customers." And it means reengineering government procedures and systems -- often with considerable reliance on information technology.

The issue is not so much what should be done, but as these past two years have shown, who will get credit for it. If there is a message in the most recent elections, it is that most citizens have seen through the shallow partisanship and want no part of it.

In the face of this mandate to get on with it, the question emerges: Who will take the lead? Politicians are elected by the people to provide leadership, but there are some important changes beginning to appear. Many recently elected officials, such as Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, have a background as successful business executives, which stands in sharp contrast with the stereotypical politician who is a not-very-successful lawyer.

Politicians with business experience have a reasonably good understanding of information technology as well as business process reengineering (BPR) and total quality management (TQM); and this is reflected in the approaches they espouse for dealing with government problems.

What also can be expected from this new breed of political leaders is the application of the principles of empowerment that pervade BPR and TQM. This will pass the torch to the bureaucracy which has front-line responsibility for making government function. Fortunately, many civil servants have been learning about TQM and even BPR in recent years and are anxious to get on with applying their knowledge in their work. A growing fraction of them have valuable experience in the private sector from which they can draw.

In any event, the heads-down "bunker mentality" of a stereotypical bureaucrat is, or soon will be, a thing of the past. In its place will be a much more proactive, politically aware form of leadership that engages in dialogue with elected officials on an equal footing in identifying, prioritizing, and ultimately resolving the problems and issues arising in government reinvention and reform. Gone will be the days of government policies and procedures carved in stone, often with excessive detail and inflexibility, by supposedly omniscient legislatures to be subsequently carried out by mindless and unquestioning "civil slaves."

The ultimate empowerment, however, will be of citizens themselves. Indications of this are already present in the form of information kiosks and Internet-based systems which enable limited levels of self-service government. More far-reaching are innovations such as TVW, the private nonprofit organization that provides video coverage -- more than one-third of it live -- of the state Legislature, Supreme Court, and executive branch via 30-plus cable networks throughout Washington state.

The quick and easy availability of information on what government is doing will ultimately lead to greater citizen involvement in the legislative process itself. In the words of one veteran political reporter: "As we reinvent government, it will be necessary to reinvent citizenship
as well."

Notwithstanding the media focus on what happens inside the Washington, D.C., beltway, we believe that these changes will occur from the bottom up -- starting at the local and state levels. As David Osborne has suggested in his earlier book, Laboratories of Democracy, the stakes are simply too high -- and the resultant gridlock too strong -- to allow radical experimentation at the federal level. Government, at that level, will become increasingly dysfunctional and irrelevant. President Clinton effectively acknowledged that in his State of the Union address nearly a year ago when he said that "the era of big government is over."

The task before us now, as we ponder turning government upside down, is to rebuild it on a more secure foundation that will serve us well in the 21st century. This will require commitment -- and, yes, leadership -- from everybody: politicians, civil servants, and most of all, citizens. It follows from the observation of Joseph de Maistre, in 1811, that "every nation has the government it deserves" that if we want better government, we will have to earn it.

Ian D. Temple is Program Director of Gartner Group's IT Executive Program for Government.

George Lindamood is Vice President and Research Director of Gartner Group's Government IT Services.


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