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'Much Worse than Expected'

Predictable headlines coming soon to a newspaper near you.

by / December 20, 2002
Dateline: Capitol City, USA (News Services) -- "Its sobering. There are tough choices ahead. The books are in much worse shape than we were led to believe before inauguration day," said a spokesperson for ...

With some variation in the specifics, this story will be told early and often as new administrations take office. Those who worked during past transitions tell of the gut-wrenching moment that comes when the enormity of governing collides violently with aspirations and promises of the campaign just past.

If assessing blame is necessary in managing expectations -- within government and without -- incoming administrations will have no shortage of targets: a halting economy, declining revenue forecasts, an insecure homeland, an opposing party (in many cases) that controlled the governor's mansion too long, and voters with an uncanny knack for denying office holders the luxury of a clear mandate.

Across-the-board budget exercises will not work under such circumstances. Base budgets are laid bare. Program cuts, layoffs and cannibalization of existing processes in favor of higher funding priorities are the orders of this new day.

There is no reason to believe state IT programs will be insulated from such cannibalization. Whether IT realignment is done smartly will depend in large measure upon the nature of high-level appointments -- the CIO certainly, but also digitally-aware agency heads responsible for the core functions of government.

Making predictions is a perilous business, but we ought not be surprised when at least one major electronic government initiative in the country is scrapped as part of such a realignment. Read the fine print: Fault will be found in the execution, not in the idea itself. The real peril may lie in not meeting expectations of newly elected officials, whose sense of digital potential was shaped by encountering the commodity Internet as a citizen, consumer and candidate. That is a strikingly different starting point than that of incumbents who, faced with the Internet juggernaut in the mid-1990s, attempted to improvise within the too familiar constraints of government. The new office holders do not know that it cannot be done.

We risk being distracted by the reaction of people within public agencies to any headline-grabbing e-cancellations. The entrenched will be self-satisfied in having outlasted the young digital Turks who threatened all they held dear. The aimless will wander off in search of the next meeting-intensive activity, particularly if it comes with coffee and pastries. The long-suffering may become resigned, angered by the inertia that seized defeat from the jaws of victory -- again.

Veteran observers of political transitions contend that our attention is better focused on the governor's office itself -- a coveted and hard-fought political prize to be sure. But evidence mounts that the much-ballyhooed levers of power are rusted and brittle. The gulf between process and results, the observers argue, is best explained by arcane executive branch management structures that are wholly inadequate to govern effectively. The branch of government responsible for doing real things increasingly can't.

Reform takes time. Just ask legislators who spent decades carefully retooling that branch's deliberative processes after confronting a similar crisis a generation ago. In the meantime, there are precious few things on which new governors can count to get traction -- perhaps only two.

A reasonable case can be made that technology -- the stuff of digital government -- is one. While technology does not compete well in budget discussions on the basis of need with kids, cops and criminals, it remains unrivaled when it comes to opportunity. New or even sustained technology investments are seen as an effective means to realizing the governor's priorities -- complete with metrics that matter, including, but not limited to, cost per unit of service and collecting a larger share of revenues already owed to government. Make no mistake -- this is a stand-and-deliver moment for the public-sector IT community and the third-party providers on which government relies. The challenge and opportunity is to help new administrations do the right things the right way.

Of course, the other means at the new governors' disposal is the bully pulpit -- powered by the force of personality and persuasion -- from behind which they make headlines. Let's give them something else to talk about.

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., , is the chief strategy officer of the Center for Digital Government, former deputy state CIO of Washington and a veteran of startups.

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Paul W. Taylor Chief Content Officer, e.Republic Inc.

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the chief content officer of Government Technology and its parent organization, e.Republic. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO. Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet startups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the nonprofit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C. He is creator, producer and co-host of the GovTech360 podcast.

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