Harvest. It's that thing most of us watch while flying over or driving through rural communities during the fall. And even if every salad you've ever eaten came from a plastic bag, you get the idea intuitively -- harvest as a noun (the yield from a growing season) and as a verb (gathering or reaping a ripened crop). Yet we are shy about using the term in our hyper-modern times. It's too arcane, too agrarian, too rural to resonate with elected officials and government employees.

Wait a minute. Many seats of government are in farm country. More importantly, it is not hard to find legislators, state executives and data center employees for whom state service subsidizes their farming habit. From that perspective, harvest seems an eminently useful way of talking about realizing public value for government's investment in the technologies of modernization.

Farmers are an intensely practical lot. They work countless hours to prepare fields, plant crops and tend them through the growing season (whatever the weather brings) because it is all necessary to a bountiful harvest. A harvest is impossible without these disciplines, but the disciplines are literally worthless (worse actually, costly) without the harvest.

This time-honored agrarian-age life cycle still has something to teach the Information Age. There is no dearth of Deming- and Drucker-inspired disciplines for growing digital crops. The broad and deep business process literature (re-engineering, management, outsourcing, etc.) and its brand-name cousins (Six Sigma and its lean variant, ISO 9000, Total Quality Management and Zoom) have a devout following in government. The difficulty in the public-sector IT community is seeing the season through to the harvest.

Elected officials complain of feeling burned by the failure to harvest promised benefits through projects they supported, reflexively reciting the "fool me once, fool me twice" axiom. And they are in no mood to be fooled, or to have crops rotting in the field.

Recent data from the National Governors Association and National Association of State Budget Officers indicates a steady decline in fund balances year over year, over year. In 2004, the all-fund balance totaled 5.5 percent of expenditures, dropping to 4.5 percent in 2005 and 3.8 percent in 2006. By comparison, the balances totaled more than 10 percent at the beginning of the decade.

Given these downward trend lines, coupled with the unpaid tab from Medicaid obligations that keeps being deferred in the name of balancing this year's budget, a good harvest is both necessary and increasingly strategic.

The good news is that a growing list of jurisdictions have overcome whatever the weather brought (political calculations, bureaucratic inertia and inter-agency rivalries) to reap a ripened crop:

  • Fort Wayne, Ind.'s Six Sigma program produced total savings of $10 million in six years, while reducing the time to fill a pothole from four days to four hours, reducing late trash pick-up by 50 percent and reducing the crime rate to its lowest in 20 years;

  • Norfolk, Va., automated the construction permit process to allow an increase of 18,000 permits per year with no added personnel;

  • The Monroe County, N.Y., Sheriff's Office reduced cost of filing an accident report by more than 70 percent and reduced the time deputies spend on accident reports by more than 80 percent; and,

  • In a nine-month, Zoom-powered initiative, nine Iowa state agencies report increased revenues totaling $1.9 million and making marked gains in responsiveness. Turnaround times were cut from three weeks to one day in one case, and from 54 days to just two in another. In a separate harvest, a rolling three-month backlog of filings has been cut to seven days.

The bad news is that this list -- and even a much longer one -- still points to what remain exceptions, with the rule rotting out in the field. You would never get by with that on the farm.

Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer