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The First Three Decades of GovTech

The inaugural issue of GT was published 30 years ago this month. While tech has come a long way since then, we're still grappling with some of the same issues as in 1987.

This issue marks the 30th anniversary of Government Technology. We dug up a copy of the inaugural issue, which looks a little different from December 2017.

e.Republic CEO and GT Editor in Chief Dennis McKenna’s original idea for Government Technology back in the late 1980s was to take the two most boring subjects — government and technology — and put them together. He went on to build a company around them — at a time when technology leaders in California state government doubted his prediction that one day, all state employees would have computers on their desks.

Paging through that first issue brings some predictable reactions. Especially in technology, the biggest takeaway is how very far we’ve come. This, of course, was pre-Internet, pre-smartphone, when significance was measured by the size of your switchboard and raised-floor data center. The ads inside offer phone numbers and physical addresses as the preferred (and only) means of contact.

IT was buried in some other function of government, not a standalone entity. Those who ran these units were IT managers. The idea of a chief information officer in government — especially one that deserved a place at the cabinet table — was novel, even foreign, but it was championed early and often in these pages.

What was perhaps a more surprising reaction is how evergreen many of the issues covered actually proved to be. While progress, remarkable in scope and scale, is evident at every turn, so too is the universal nature of many of the biggest challenges in government IT.

Case in point: The struggle to create mutually beneficial relationships between the public and private sectors snags a good amount of ink in the 1987 issue. David Lema, then-director of the state of California’s Stephen P. Teale Data Center, urged readers to work toward symbiotic, two-way partnerships in which taxpayers and shareholders alike “each rightfully demand a good return on their investment.” Another piece suggests vendors ought to invest as much time boning up on prospective government clients as they do potential customers in other markets.

The premier issue also looks at the advantages of telecommuting as an antidote to ever-increasing traffic, offering advantages for productivity, absentee rates and making government a more desirable employer. While it’s a challenge to imagine remote work in the pre-Internet era, the building blocks for a more flexible workplace were being considered, even then. Our recent workforce series proves that CIOs see the benefits, even if some still struggle with policies. The essential nature of a mobile-enabled workforce — for field-based and remote work — is fully accepted today.

Evidence of data-sharing, and its inherent challenges, were hinted at in the early days as well. A profile of nonprofit Public Technology Inc., described as the research and development arm of the National League of Cities and the International City/County Management Association, pointed to a payroll upgrade for a California city that benefited from an internally developed tool from a Wyoming municipality. The concept — one jurisdiction benefiting from a solution another built for the same issue — was a novel one at the time, yet it foretold so much of what was to come.

The Young Turks of 1987 are now graybeards, what was cutting-edge tech then has aged into legacy and what were then new companies are now incumbents, each negotiating a future with hundreds of gov tech startups that have assumed the vanguard in what seems like an eternal quest to find a better way to do the work of government.

These are just a few examples of broad topics from 1987 — when a gallon of gas cost 87 cents — that still resonate today. While the specifics of each challenge have evolved, and tales of overcoming them in smart ways are many, the underlying themes still seem worthy of consideration.

Hopefully this means we’re still talking about the right things. Let us know. And here’s to the next 30 years of GovTech. 

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter. Follow @GovTechNoelle
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