The Five-Year Test, Revisited

Measuring another year in the life of the public-sector IT community.

by / December 3, 2004
An old Saturday Night Live sketch may be an odd basis for a Yuletide tradition, but here is the second annual signal:noise nod to Father Guido Sarducci's Five Minute University. The underlying genius of the Five Minute University is its advice not to try to predict the future, but instead focus on the few things one can remember five years after graduation. Consider the Five Minute University view of the past year:

1. A public service haunted by the failure of imagination: cracked foundations

In its indictment of the intelligence community, the 9/11 Commission famously quoted a witness on how even connected dots were systematically ignored -- "The system was blinking red."

The growing cracks in the foundations of public institutions, through which billions of dollars flow and on which millions of lives rely, require reform that does not fit neatly within a single election cycle. The problems are compounded by the retirement wave within the civil service, where government ranks are being drained of the people who not only remember how government does what it does -- but more importantly, why.

2. Critical cohorts: two generations reshaping society and reforming government

The graying of public service is a small but important part of the baby boom retirement wave that will hit fully in 2008. In the years ahead, 77 million aging boomers will contribute less to and demand more from government services. At the same time, 60 million young people will come of age in the opening decade of the new millennium.

These "millennials" are Net-native, experience-oriented and unlikely to find public service a compelling career choice, at least in the current climate. Together, the boomers and millennials account for almost half (47 percent) of the population -- and their conflicting expectations increase the risk of fracture in the foundations of public institutions.

3. An open future at the crossroads: becoming what you rebel against

Even as Linus Torvalds rallies the open source community around a more stringent software certification regime for his namesake Linux, what the community sees as increasing commercial encroachment risks undermining its central tenet: openness.

As a large-scale software user and purchaser, government has a long-term interest in avoiding UNIX fragmentation and another generation of vendor lock-ins. At a minimum, government can contractually reinforce the Linux Standard Base, a standard for Linux distributions and Linux-based applications design, to ensure interoperability among vendors.

4. Consolidation but not necessarily centralization: once is enough

Through surveys, the Center for Digital Government documented a new wave of consolidation in state and local government, particularly in terms of shared infrastructure and common architecture. Importantly consolidation is being delinked from Soviet-style centralization -- with a new emphasis on building it once, building it right and building it anywhere, just not everywhere.

The Center's new vice president of advisory services, John Thomas Flynn, anticipates this competence-based flavor of consolidation indicates that consolidated applications will tie together agencies that share mission and function but have operated autonomously.

5. The bankruptcy of "doing more with less": death of a transitionary mantra

The trouble with enabling technologies is they can also be "enablers" in the therapeutic sense -- as in enabling dysfunction, denial, and ultimately, destruction. The ubiquitous phrase "doing more with less" seemed a reasonable compromise between realism and hope during the public-sector revenue recession's darkest hours.

But public service and public institutions will not be sustained in the long term by doing more with less -- only by doing things fundamentally differently.

That is the vital conversation on which public-sector IT stands or falls.
Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

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.

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