Information technology "is no longer a tool merely for incrementally improving the status-quo," stated a Harvard survey on government released this month. "In many situations it has become a tool for quantum-leap, revolutionary change. This poses fundamentally new challenges for leadership."
The survey report -- Information Technology Leadership in Government: Status and Directions for the Future -- by Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, assessed how government views its own leadership in technology and other areas. More than 500 people responded to the survey, including CIOs, politically appointed general managers and policy staff not directly involved in technology management. While technology leadership got good marks, government in general did not.
At the bottom of the pile were legislative bodies with a 7 percent favorable rating. CIOs, on the other hand, were given an 86 percent favorable rating. General management and budget personnel were granted a 36 percent favorable rating, and chief executive officers had a 45 percent favorable rating. While it may be expected that CIOs would give themselves favorable ratings, the results were similar in the other survey groups.
"We are a long way in government from generating solid partnerships between the [information technology] community and the general management community," asserts the survey report. "Practitioners see a huge gap between what is possible and what we are actually doing."
Tom Fletcher, associate director of the Harvard program, noted in an interview that the gap between the nontechnical leadership and technologists needs to be narrowed if information technology's potential to change government is to be fulfilled. "This is a significant drag on government's ability to move forward," he said.
To help narrow the differences, Fletcher said that nontechnical leaders, such as elected officials and program managers, could learn more about how technology can be a tool for changing government, while technical people could focus more on their agency's mission. "If those two concerns are brought together, the result could be improved government efficiency," Fletcher said. "The CIOs could be a bridge between these two parts."
The study, which was also supported by IBM's Institute for Electronic Government, found that excessive near-term orientation of current leadership is seen as the single most significant obstacle to better utilization of technology in government, especially by those dissatisfied with information technology progress.
As a whole, respondents evaluated their own agencies better than government in general but said government performance falls far short of what it should be.
Specialists have traditionally been given an assignment to implement a project without much input or support from top government leadership. "But the leadership is increasingly realizing that this is the wrong approach," said Jerry Mechling, director of Harvard's Program on Strategic Computing and Telecommunications. "Delegating to experts is the kiss of death."
This trend, which is bringing technology from the back rooms to a critical position in organizations, has been embraced by the private sector and government is gradually picking it up, Mechling said. For example, he explained, Utah Gov. Leavitt can speak in public about information technology using only a few simple topic notes. While this is still unusual for political leaders today, it was unheard of just a few years ago.
Organizations are beginning to realize that technology is critical to improving government, Mechling said, and involvement by higher levels of leadership in information technology management is becoming more common. Playing on the old saw that "war is too important to leave to the generals," Mechling quipped that the leadership has realized that "technology is too important to leave to technologists."
For more information, contact the Program on Strategic Computing and Telecommunications, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 617/495-3036.