When President Barack Obama took office, he promised increased transparency, communication and participation would be three major priorities for the new administration - a fitting pledge given that today's government serves an ultraconnected and technologically advanced constituency. Combined with an economic meltdown and increased security threats, this has required government agencies to be more effective, well optimized and highly communicative.
Technology is at the core of meeting these demands, and will ultimately help the public sector deliver on its promises to connect more effectively with constituents. It's commonly suggested that government is 10 to 15 years behind the private sector in its use of enabling technologies. As such, it will be the leading private-sector practices in technology usage for improving performance that will most impact and advance government programs.
The first logical step in an information transformation agenda is technology modernization. Not only are many of today's government systems antiquated, they are also expensive to maintain and manage. The federal government alone spends more than $75 billion annually on IT-related projects, much of which goes for upkeep on legacy systems that are no longer commercially available or are one-off, custom environments, making operation and repairs extremely costly. In addition to a high cost of ownership, these systems were never intended to integrate information as today's challenges require. In today's connected world of collaboration and information delivery, siloed systems that can't easily and cost-effectively integrate with other environments are rendered ineffective, and in some cases, unusable.
Not only do the various technology systems within a typical agency need to communicate better, there's also growing urgent need to provide tools that enable enhanced interagency communication and collaboration. The lack of information sharing exhibited among various agencies in the failed 2009 Christmas Day attack on our airlines is the latest example of the integrated information gaps that currently exist in U.S. government - problems that could largely be alleviated with the right technologies, strategies and tools. There's certainly no ill intent among the government agencies that serve to protect the country, but there's an unquestionable lack of information flow and communication that is partly the result of technology environments built for operational and not informational purposes.
Given what's at stake, the highest levels of integrated data mining, analytics and business intelligence are critical for making informed, timely decisions - thus improving performance and delivering on virtually all government services. Every major program or initiative today - including securing the homeland, protecting freedoms abroad, reforming health care, providing for citizens and addressing the current financial challenges - are inextricably linked to integrated, secure, timely and accurate information flow through a connected government.
Confusion persists about how to properly utilize Web 2.0 technologies, such as wikis, Facebook and Twitter. These tools have introduced a revolution from a "push" model, whereby any corporation can push products, services and information through a one-way channel, to a "pull" model, where consumers use technology to participate, provide feedback and make purchasing decisions based on user preferences.
Rather than being stalled by Web 2.0, many in the private sector are developing business plans around these technologies and using them for competitive advantage. The music industry, and most recently the book publishing industry are private-sector examples that have recognized the change in consumer behavior around technology and have adapted accordingly. As Americans become more accustomed to operating and communicating through digital channels, government will also need to meet the expectation for collaboration and participation. Such reform will mean modernization beyond just technology replacement - it requires a modernization of how governments function in the new world.
In the haste to move everything online, it's important to remember that although a large segment of the end-user community (or citizens) are natives to the digital world, there's still a great number of less-savvy constituents who prefer to operate in the traditional, paper-based world where fax machines and printers prevail. Government will increasingly look at private-sector examples to determine how to meet the needs of both groups simultaneously.
Financial services, for example, is one industry that has successfully revamped itself for the digital consumer, while maintaining its paper-based practices for those who aren't comfortable accessing their bank statements online. By providing customers with the power and independence to communicate with their bank and make transactions in a manner that fits their comfort level, financial institutions have achieved increased participation on behalf of their customers. This is one area government could learn to replicate, despite the industry's latest major mishaps.
Photo: In May 2009, President Obama appointed Aneesh Chopra to be the national chief technology officer to promote technological innovation. Chopra previously served as Virginia's secretary of technology, worked on the first open source textbook and created a social networking site for small health-care offices, which the president hopes will translate nationally. Photo courtesy of Virginia Secretary of Technology Office
Transparency Versus Security
As government looks to incorporate emerging technologies, one of the biggest challenges is the dichotomy between transparency and security. Because government holds highly sensitive and critical data, it's faced with the huge responsibility of data stewardship, and at the same time, the highest demand for information accessibility from citizens. Unfortunately transparency and security are still diametrically opposed in government and are very difficult to satisfy concurrently.
This challenge is a fundamental difference between IT demands in the public and private sectors. While businesses today need to ensure that an employee's mobile devices are secure, it is not a matter of national security as it was when Obama was issued his BlackBerry. A summer intern divulging company information on Facebook, though reckless and problematic, doesn't carry the same consequences in the private sector as a government employee posting information about troop movement in Afghanistan.
Although the stakes aren't always as high, the private sector has found a happy medium for technology that allows for collaboration and communication with its public, while maintaining the highest degrees of security. An example of this is the retail industry. In its transformation from brick-and-mortar shops to e-commerce, the industry has had its fair share of setbacks, including identity theft and phishing. However, the need for both information accessibility and security for its customers has spurred some of the most advanced systems for maintaining privacy online.
Tiny Waves of Change
The nation's first tech-savvy president and his appointment of the first-ever national CTO are just a few examples of the paradigm shift that's taking place in government today. In fact, the federal government's use of cloud computing is one area where government is leading the private sector in the use of emerging technologies.
Integrated information systems and the use of Web 2.0 technologies will be two critical components of increased transparency, communication and collaboration - both within government agencies and between governments and citizens. The movement toward a more technologically advanced government requires a technology-based shift in how it conducts business. It will take a re-examination of organizational structure and processes, and most of all, leadership at every level. This transformation presents a huge opportunity for the private sector as government seeks industry best practices, tools and guidance to meet the 21st century's technological demands.
Joe Moye leads Capgemini's U.S. public-sector practice. Moye has more than 25 years of technology leadership and management consulting experience in the private and public sectors.