Like most government programs, the Space Transportation System (STS) -- as the Space Shuttle is officially known -- started out with high hopes. NASA promised space travel so cheap that Congress envisioned weekly launches for $10 million. Yet wild repurposing and specific mission demands from administrators in NASA, the Air Force and those on Capitol Hill steadily eroded the shuttle program's capability and focus, crippling it before it even got off the ground.

As is common in government today, the shuttle program continued anyway, broken and hemorrhaging money. Launches cost $400 million apiece and now serve only to finish the shuttle's costlier cousin -- the $100 billion International Space Station (ISS).

According to some observers, NASA has effectively used the ISS to justify the continued existence of the dangerously obsolete STS, and conversely used the STS to justify the existence of the ISS. Instead of focusing on innovation, recognizing mistakes and trying again, the shuttle program, like many others in government, serves only to provide reasons that it mustn't be eliminated.

When Innovation and Government Click

As the Space Shuttle illustrates, failure to innovate in terms of both technology and culture can transform even the best-intentioned government agency into an ineffective bureaucracy or worse. As government at all levels slowly claws its way out of a mainframe existence and into a networked world of efficient service delivery, it becomes critical to understand the importance of IT innovation in government, the barriers that prevent such innovation and how to overcome them.

Those barriers can be high and efforts in overcoming them can be costly. As Peter Quinn, former CIO of Massachusetts can attest, sometimes the resistance to change, the built-in processes and the deeply rooted private interests can't be overcome alone.

Quinn led a widely publicized effort to move all state documents to an open standard, called Open Document Format. As one might guess, a lot of politicians and big technology vendors weren't excited to see such a change take place. In the end, Quinn lost and resigned his post in January 2006 with a perspective few others have.

"The cost of government today is just not sustainable in its present form," said Quinn. "It's woefully inefficient most of the time, and when you think of what the future looks like with health-care costs going up somewhere between 8 percent to 15 percent a year ... the money is just not going to be there as it currently exists. [Government's] got to be able to share information in a way that it's never had to share before."

Across the country are countless examples of brilliantly successful initiatives that represent what an innovative IT strategy can do in government. But for every success, dozens of agencies still wallow in isolation and obsolescence. The challenge is getting the policymakers in outmoded agencies to understand the need to innovate and to act on it.

"I think there are a number of different reasons why governments should or are embracing IT or e-gov[ernment]," said Rob Atkinson, vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute, adding that governments should turn to IT or e-government because of the quality of service it affords the citizen, and the opportunity to cut down on cost. But the latter, according to him, hasn't been a focus.

"In theory, you get companies like Cisco and Oracle, and all these companies that save hundreds of millions of dollars using IT; there's no reason government can't be getting similar results -- they just haven't up to this point by and large," Atkinson said. "They should be able to do this, and I think that will end up becoming more of a driver of e-gov[ernment] adoption as we go forward."

There are numerous programs that save government hefty sums of money while improving service delivery to constituents. For every e-government program developed, the host agency can save millions in paper, mailing and processing fees. Motor vehicle departments in many states set a shining example of this sort of innovation.

For citizens looking to avoid waiting in lines at the DMV, online e-government services are a godsend. Services such as license renewal and registration payment help citizens and government agencies achieve a more efficient interaction.

"The key is an innovative approach of using a new technology, finding a new way to do things, usually removes layers of time, money and makes the whole interaction between citizens and their government more painless, more productive and less expensive," said Fred Thompson, vice president of Management and Technology for the Council for Excellence in Government. "[E-government services] allow citizens to connect directly to government and get rid of barriers to service, and allow people to transact the business they need with government in a way that's convenient to the person."

Another success, as pointed out by former U.S. Commerce Department CIO Alan Balutis, was the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Do Not Call List. While not necessarily a big money saver for the agency, the innovative service gave citizens access to a desired service, and rather quickly -- characteristics not typically associated with a large federal agency.

"The government had a short period of time for the FTC to implement this procedure, put a system in place, handle a huge volume of calls -- all to ensure that you could actually have your dinner at home in the evening with your family and not have somebody call you from some company," Balutis said. "That was a really dramatic success story in what they were able to do in a very short period of time to implement that mandate in a way that touched 80 percent to 90 percent of the citizenry in the United States."

The Roadblocks

Innovation in government IT is happening; it's just not happening as quickly or in as many places as many would like. Take Manassas, Va., where Mayor Doug Waldron has overseen the nation's first municipal broadband over power lines system. Or look at the number of cities planning and implementing citywide Wi-Fi networks. States like Virginia, Texas and Washington continue to lead the nation with innovative e-government offerings.

Sometimes the problems with innovation occur when an agency's mission doesn't keep up with the times. As far back as 1990, NASA came under criticism for allowing a world-class program to wither into a stodgy bureaucracy that let expertise and experience lapse, according to an article in The Economist.

A decade later the cracks turned into fissures. NASA's status as a technical powerhouse faded. One sign was the decline in the number of patents issued by the space agency, according to an article in The New York Times, published in 2003.

Losing a sense of mission isn't the only barrier to innovation for government, said Darrell West, professor of political science at Brown University and author of Digital Government: Technology and Public Sector Performance.

"The hardest thing in innovation is overcoming entrenched interests. Either there are private groups that don't want the government undertaking certain activities, or within government, there are bureaucrats who worry about the loss of autonomy," he said. "Governments can be incredibly slow at embracing innovation because nobody wants to disrupt their routines. But to get the benefits of technology, you have to integrate offerings across agencies and change the way people do their jobs. And that has been a big barrier to innovation. People are resistant to change. And you're not going to get the benefits of the technology unless people start doing things differently."

In a paper titled Overcoming Obstacles to Technology-Enabled Transformation, William Eggers, global director of Deloitte Research, Public Sector, cites a survey conducted by Deloitte that identified the primary barriers to technology reform in government. According to the paper, the leading obstacle -- topping even diminished funding -- was too little statewide leadership.

Leadership is the crux of the problem. Achieving a culture change in government will simply not happen on its own. Someone must step up and take the reins. However, some political leaders may not want to displease public employees unions who some see as fearing that IT innovation means layoffs. Indeed, as Eggers notes, "No aspect of government reform provokes a fiercer reaction than threatening the jobs of public employees."

The burden (or challenge) of affecting this change will oftentimes fall to the CIO.

"I think the CIO is important as really kind of an enabler," said Mark Abramson, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. "But the CIO's job is a little bit different than the political job. The CIO is really the implementer and should take the lead in finding the smarter solutions."

Finding smarter solutions can mean just about anything as technology advances at a fast pace. But part of the built-in culture of government that leaders like CIOs must overcome is the tendency of agencies to function as stovepipes -- either unable or unwilling to be part of a shared data model. There must be a way to make such agencies adapt the vision of a private-sector business model to a public-sector mission.

Atkinson detailed how he thinks this change toward interoperability can be accomplished.

"To me, the way to do this would be for a state, a local government or even the feds to really do a careful analysis of basically all the routine processes they engage in, how much they cost with the non-IT channels per transaction and how much they cost with IT, and then commit to some real goals," he said. "Set some goals for, by x-date, x-percentage of these transactions will be conducted digitally."

"And get the buy-in of the state OMB [Office of Management and Budget], have the governor make it a state-of-state piece -- the CIO would have to be the one that would lead this -- and then the other place to do it is to get buy-ins from the state appropriations committees. Have them basically hold peoples' feet to the fire. That, in some ways, could be a real friend to the CIO, not a barrier. CIOs need all the help they can get. If you can get the state appropriations committees to say, 'In three years we want to see 75 percent of driver's license renewals done online or else ...'"

Can We Pull Together?

Leadership isn't the only area of weakness. That great American tradition of individuality is not so effective for delivering government services in an IT world.

"Our forefathers did a great job thinking about the separation of powers in the different branches of government, and it's clearly served us well for many hundreds of years, but I think people apply that to everything else we do in government," said Quinn. "At the end of the day, everybody builds unto themselves. In state government, agencies continue to build unto themselves ... any presentation I've done, I always get to the end and always ask the question, 'If we all do the same thing, why do we build 50 different solutions and most of the time do a lousy job of it?'"

It's often said that it takes dramatic events to affect real change in government. Many regard recent events such as 9/11 and Katrina as pivotal moments that are forcing governments to move toward true innovation. But in Quinn's opinion -- which, he said, many others share -- even these terrifying events have not been enough to motivate governments to change.

"There's another vision, which is very ugly, that I have spoken to other folks about -- and they all happen to agree with me, which is a little bit frightening -- but we think that what happened in New Orleans and what happened to FEMA -- everybody says that was an exception -- but I would suggest to you on a national, state and local level, I think we have the setting to have that happen again and again and again," warned Quinn, adding that he thinks the government process is extremely broken, and that it's become siloed, risk averse, and buried in bureaucracy. "I think what happened with FEMA, as a citizen, you ought to be thinking you're going to be seeing more and more of that as we go forward. I really do," he said. "What have we learned since 9/11? I would suggest to you not a whole lot. The country's in for another rude awakening at some point. When they go back and do a post-mortem to see what happened, they're going to be very surprised at how little progress has been made."

The Next Move

IT innovation in government is about improvement. It's about bettering how government operates and how it serves the public. The technology exists to make even the wildest dreams come true, but technology isn't the problem.

"I'm going to define e-government as really the transformation of government service delivery to make it more efficient, effective and economical," said Brien Lorenze, managing director at technology consulting firm BearingPoint. "That really is a business transformation first and foremost, not a technical transformation. It's about culture, and it's about leadership."

IT innovation in government requires not only a desire to change, but also leadership to make it happen. A private-sector company that never rewards or acknowledges good performance, treats employees like tools instead of people, or that makes communication almost impossible is setting itself up for long-term failure. In private industry, however, there's always a new company to replace the failing one.

That's not the case in government. That same scenario in the public sector leads not to destruction but to dismay, disservice and disarray. In many ways, IT innovation is even more important in government than in the private sector. Failure in the private sector is washed away by the market, but a failing public-sector enterprise -- one that can't or won't innovate -- is reduced to justifying its existence at the expense of everyone involved ... not unlike a certain Space Shuttle program.

Chad Vander Veen  |  Editor, FutureStructure

Chad Vander Veen is the editor of FutureStructure.com