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What I Learned Reporting on State and Local Government IT (Opinion)

Features Editor Andy Opsahl is leaving Government Technology after nearly six years, but not before sharing some last words about lessons learned on the IT beat.

Since I am leaving Government Technology this month after nearly six years, my editor suggested I reflect on my time reporting on state and local government IT. My life’s new direction has little to do with that topic, but tracking technology for almost six years gave me wisdom I’ll value forever. I learned to be hopeful about the future while keeping my feet on the ground. Reporters see so many trends hyped as revolutionary come and go. With state and local IT, the cycle occasionally ends in litigation. I stopped keeping count of botched outsourcing contracts a few years ago.

In 2008, when the District of Columbia’s Apps for Democracy contest launched, it promised a dramatic culture shift in app-based services to citizens. Agencies simply needed to make government data feeds available to developers. Apps came back to help citizens navigate public transit, find parking spots and locate government monuments. A few years later, Apps for Democracy was discontinued because the resultant apps usually ceased being updated once hype over them died. What’s interesting, however, is that given this issue’s reporting on national CTO Aneesh Chopra’s plans, open data initiatives could resurge in state and local government.

The truth about this beat is that things come and go and then come back again. “Breaking the silos” of individual agency IT shops and centralizing them for increased efficiency has been the drumbeat in government since I started at this magazine. Imagine my surprise when I learned IT had been decentralized years ago as a reform of it being centralized years before that. The old ideas are always reimagined in ways that drive CIOs into some “new paradigm.” The reasons for doing so usually seem compelling, sometimes imperative, at the time.

These days, the biggest trend on my radar is a push among local governments to share IT regionally. Many CIOs predict huge cost savings and increased efficiencies, and expect it to be their new normal. I won’t be tracking public-sector IT anymore, so I’ll likely never know how that turns out. I’ll probably only find out if it disrupts government services, blows millions of dollars and ends in yet another lawsuit.

Perhaps you think what I learned these past six years was cynicism, but that’s not what I’m trying to express. Some things really do revolutionize — Microsoft Windows, server farms, the iPhone. This could be another failed prediction, but I believe the semantic Web will change everything. Lessons from the past are valuable only when they trigger us to look toward the future with more knowledge. The day we throw our hands up is the day we begin our decline. This messy, fruitful learning cycle is in every place we find ourselves. And as I’ve seen happen with so many other things on this beat, it’s time for me to go.