When Technology Is Not the Solution (Contributed)

Despite years of investments worth billions of dollars, government has not seen the kind of radical results it expected from technology. A key reason why: States and localities first need to fix their capacity problem.

by / March 14, 2019

I used to work for a very smart man who would always say, “The solution is not the solution, because the problem is not the problem.” He was continually frustrated by his management team addressing symptoms, but never assessing the root cause of their performance issues. I’ve since stolen the mantra as my own and use it for everything from improvement teams I facilitate to information technology projects I’ve managed. And lately, I’ve been using it with IT a lot.

Technology is great for so much. Advancements in mobility alone have been worth the price of admission, but add to it the speed in which we can find information, the ability to mine a plethora of data, and the still-evolving benefits of artificial intelligence, and you could argue we are living in a golden age of technology. I love the world we live in, but I do have one small issue: As a solution to our biggest problems, technology is not the solution because technology is not the problem.

We’ve been investing billions of dollars into our IT infrastructure and in new systems, and only finding pockets of radical results. As a whole, after years of planning, bidding, implementing and introducing all of this new technology, we find ourselves left wanting more. Even as early as 2010 the signs were on the wall that technology, while great, was not going to yield radical results. That year, Gartner, the IT research firm, presented a report that suggested a 15 percent bump in efficiency was the average that could be expected after all the payroll, procurement and payment-like processes had been automated.

To increase our chances of getting more than 15 percent efficiency for the millions of dollars we’re investing, we’ve built better project management, better contracts and better business supports. While all smart moves, I’d argue it’s not that government didn’t know how to lead large projects, or how to monitor complex contract agreements, or garner financial and leadership support that caused our disappointment. These things help us run phenomenal projects, but they don’t help us get phenomenal results.

The biggest problem facing government today is capacity. Most of our agencies are facing a true capacity crisis with much more work coming in than we have people and resources to cope with. In human services alone, we have seen 40 percent more people on benefits with 20 percent less resources to serve them. In child welfare, workers need 20 hours to do a quality safety assessment, and they are getting three to five new assessments every week. We simply cannot keep up. Whether it’s too many kids at risk, too many permit requests, too many programs to administer or too many work orders, everyone seems to be living under the pressure of too much work and not enough resources.

Yet we’re living like we’re in a technology crisis, as if we are struggling because our systems keep shutting down, or that we keep losing data so we cannot manage workflow, or that the computers have begun to think on their own and a “Terminator”-like Skynet revolt is imminent. We keep on investing like technology is our problem, and technology alone will relieve the pressure. It was supposed to be the way of the future, and we all expected an easier “row to hoe” when the machines could help with the heavy lifting. As it turns out, heavy lifting wasn’t the problem either.

Truth is, we don’t know the solution, because we really haven’t studied the problem.

Ironically, studying capacity is one of the easiest things to do: how many came in today vs. how many went out. If you regularly have more coming in than out, you have a capacity problem. The more in than out, the larger the problem. You probably also have a lot of late work (there’s a system that will track work to deadlines and let employees know when they need to focus on work that’s about to be late), you likely have backlogged work (there’s a system that can track this), and you might have large lines and full waiting rooms (there’s software to set client appointments, too).

All of these problems are symptoms, and all of these systems just manage those symptoms better than we can without the technology. Here lies the rub: Without the technology we’d be much, much worse, but how do we get much, much better?

Imagine you had this issue in a car factory, where the solutions practically jump out at you: Either get more people to work more shifts, or find a faster way to make cars with the people you have. Unfortunately, our budgets can rarely support more people, and our leaders haven’t been very keen on increasing the size of government recently. So that only leaves one solution. We need to build capacity with what we have. Do more with the same.

Easier said than done for most of us, particularly those of us in IT, who are routinely handed gunked-up business processes and asked to automate them in an attempt to alleviate the pressure. But here’s what I’ve learned about building capacity in the last 25 years that rarely gets shared. Technology automates the work, but the work is rarely the problem. The work is the work, and if the 80’s movie “Gung Ho” taught us anything, it’s that “mush” is not a successful improvement strategy.

Truth is, our capacity problems lie in the way our work is structured. Our gunk is caused by years of CYA, resulting in unnecessary handoffs between units, bottlenecks, batches, backlog and bureaucracy. Technology never caused any of these, so it can’t be expected to fix them. What is robbing us of capacity is all the stuff that isn’t the work, and until we attack that, our technology is like putting a fresh coat of paint on a condemned house.

Ribbons of shame for anyone who turns to IT as our first solution, because capacity is our real problem.

Bill Bott Contributing Writer
Bill Bott is a consulting partner with the Change & Innovation Agency, which helps organizations improve performance. Bott is the former deputy CIO of Missouri. In 2007, he was named Public Official of the Year by Governing magazine, and in 2008 was recognized by Government Technology as one of the Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers in the public sector.