As if CIOs don't already have the deck stacked against them when asking for IT-project funding, they also have to fight the past.

Ask any CIO unlucky enough to take over the IT helm at a troubled agency or department: The ghosts of mistakes past refuse to die. It matters little if those mistakes happened last year, five years ago or even 10 years ago. The public never forgets. The mainstream press never forgets. Legislators who weren't even around when a major IT project went south hear the whispers and get cold feet when their vote is required to authorize new initiatives.

Though it's not fair, it's understandable, especially when failures repeat themselves in messy and public ways.

In Arkansas, newspapers had a field day for the last year with the troubles vexing the Arkansas Administrative Statewide Information System (AASIS), which was supposed to be a performance-based budgeting system. The final straw came in mid-December, when lawmakers were told that after spending $57.5 million on AASIS, the system is being "abandoned" because it is unworkable, according to testimony.

Local government also has its share of troubles. The director of the Plano, Texas, Information Services Department resigned after being presented records from a newspaper investigation in December alleging that he performed outside consulting work on city time and billed Plano and a client for the same travel expenses.

Is it any wonder lawmakers are leery about appropriating money for large IT projects? The "we need to do more with less, and technology can help us" argument could be persuasive, but it loses impact if high-profile projects fail.

It's not all doom and gloom, though.

Technology officials in Virginia launched a fact-finding mission and informed the Legislature of the somewhat disheartening results: A slew of IT projects failed or didn't achieve the results agencies had hoped for, agencies spent too much money on redundant IT projects, nobody knew how many IT employees the state had, and the state didn't really know how much money it was spending on IT in the first place.

After these confessions to legislators, senior technology leaders laid out a strategy for using the information to solve at least some of the IT problems facing the state.

The moral of the story is simple: People will continue to mistrust IT projects as long as they're given good reasons to. Pick up a daily newspaper in a capitol city in practically any state, and it's a good bet you'll find at least one story each week detailing some IT imbroglio.

CIOs know it's not the technology that fails in these projects -- it's the people behind the scenes who bear responsibility for such failures. Self-interest often is the culprit. Until enlightened self-interest -- or as Alexis de Tocqueville said in his book Democracy in America, "self-interest rightly understood" -- becomes the driving force of government reform, such efforts are likely to fail.

As de Tocqueville expressed it, enlightened self-interest raises the question of whether it is to the advantage of a person, or group of people, to work together for the good of all. Though his discussion examined America's nascent political landscape, it rings just as true when looking at IT projects that could benefit a county, city or state.

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor