On Politics and Propositions

If it was easy, anybody could do it.

by / November 16, 2005
Open gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey this month are widely expected, as The Boston Globe suggests, "to provide the rest of the nation an early glimpse at the current political mindset" in anticipation of next year's big contests for governor in 36 states. Of these three dozen, term limits take seven incumbents out of the hunt next year; most of the others will be seeking new mandates after head-turning wins in 2002, or in the case of California, the 2003 recall election.

With more than two-thirds of the country in play, it is not too early to think about the talking points for public-sector IT in the campaign ahead. It's been a long time since we have heard lines like "dot-com-ing of government services" or "everything e by 2003" in stump speeches. The current flavor of consolidation is driven by the desire to mine costs out of IT, rather than using IT to change the cost structure of delivering government services. It is the perfection of means and the confusion of ends.

The public-sector IT community has been promising efficiency, effectiveness, cost savings and increased capacity for decades. The track record on those points is uneven. The body of work is book-ended by examples of transformational success and disappointing failures, with a largely undistinguished middle.

Government modernization is an iterative process that is never finished. That's tough to reconcile with a four-year political cycle. Still, there was an important and underreported lesson in the 2002 gubernatorial election. There were only 12 incumbents among the three dozen governors elected that fall. Moreover, 15 others represented a change in party for the chief executive's office in their respective states. Two dozen states are led by men and women who came to office with no skin in the e-government game. If there was ever a moment that the digital government experiment could have collapsed, it was inauguration day 2003.

Look around, click around -- 50 states, 50 official state portals, many of them in better shape today than they were when their benefactors took office. Not one was taken down.

While we were busy worrying about other things, state portals and the online applications behind them finally shook the old description of "alternative delivery channels" to emerge as the new mainstream in public service. To be clear, in seven short years, states and localities established a new, permanent and scalable delivery channel. More importantly, the new governors themselves expected nothing less, because unlike their predecessors, they were able to live digitally before they governed digitally.

Then it all hit a wall of retrenchment in response to what David Osborne called a permanent budget crisis. For its part, much of the work in public-sector IT was reduced to blocking and tackling inside government -- even as these same technologies were flattening the world, the analogy favored by Thomas Friedman in his most recent book on globalization, The World Is Flat. In the fall 2005 issue of Public CIO, Keith Comstock urged public servants to read Friedman's "disturbingly accurate assessment" because "a whole lot may depend upon it."

Comstock and other reviewers have argued with Friedman over propositions -- the institutional failure of American education, the loss of large volumes of good jobs, an economy that is supposed to be built on the imagination rather than steel or even sand, and the erosion of national sovereignty. What is government to do?

Indeed, the book may do as much to shape the political mindset for the next election cycle as this month's votes in that it provides a framework for important public conversations -- and arguments -- about the interdependencies and contradictions of our time. As those who helped unleash the technology-based flatteners, it is incumbent on public CIOs, not just the elected officials for whom they work, to respond to Friedman's repeated challenge to figure it out. It gets harder from here, but it is getting interesting again.

Paul W. Taylor Chief Content Officer, e.Republic Inc.

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.