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Center for Technology in Government on Collaboration and Knowledge Sharing

The Center for Technology in Government offers lessons learned from two decades of public-sector IT.

Editor’s Note: Since the inception of Public CIO, the University at Albany’s Center for Technology in Government (CTG) has been a frequent and welcome contributor. Created at the dawn of e-government, the CTG has had front-row seats for the public sector’s ongoing technology-powered transformation. But far from being a passive observer, the center has worked directly with hundreds of government organizations to implement innovative ideas and prove new concepts. Along the way, the CTG translated its experiences into best practices and practical guidance that have helped shape the state of the art for public CIOs.

This year, the center celebrates its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, we asked CTG Founding Director Sharon Dawes and current Director Theresa Pardo to compile some essential advice for effectively using technology in the public sector.

In 1993, then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo announced the creation of the Center for Technology in Government “to pursue new ways of applying technologies directly to the practical problems of information management and service delivery in the public sector.” The idea behind CTG came from state government IT leaders who wanted to try new ideas for using information and technology to improve government. They worked closely with us to invent CTG as a place where they could explore and experiment before making big investments in technical, organizational and institutional transformation.

Today, we work with governments worldwide, often collaborating with academics, private firms and nongovernmental organizations. Our scope and reach are much wider, but our philosophy is unchanged. We work with government to find innovative solutions to pressing public problems. We share globally what we learn from each project. We work with actively engaged partners in and out of the public sector who understand that innovation is hard work with both risks and rewards.

Throughout our 20-year history, we have emphasized how the societal context and institutional character of government interact with information and communication technologies to shape the capabilities and influence the performance of the public sector.

We fundamentally believe that innovation is a function of creative exploration of the interdependencies among public policy, public management, information resources and technologies in use.

Photo: Sharon Dawes, founding director of the CTG,  led the organization from 1993 to 2005.

Too often we’ve seen governments struggle to apply a popular strategy, policy or technological solution to their local context to no productive end. We’ve seen large central government agencies install multimillion dollar systems that fail for lack of consideration of the culture and capabilities of the intended user community. We’ve seen small municipalities spend $50,000 on systems because they work for their peers, only to discover too late that the system doesn’t work for them because of inherent differences in capability, structure or management. With no money left to make it work, their staff members still do time cards by hand or collect data on clipboards. Systems lie dormant while processes remain slow and mystifying for frustrated and underserved citizens and communities.

At the same time, we’ve seen amazing successes where innovations flourish thanks to thoughtful analysis of what is both possible and advisable in a specific time and place. Twenty years of work with some of the bravest and brightest public-sector innovators has generated practical lessons, empirical evidence and analytical tools all designed to gather and exploit deep contextual knowledge that tips the balance in favor of success.

These lessons have stood the tests of time. Take the evolving focus on data as an example. A 1995 effort to build an open data community (although we didn’t call it that then) produced a prototype spatial data repository and a statewide data sharing program for New York that still exists today. A U.S. National Archives project to build a planning tool for “electronic records access” in 2002 identified the fundamentals for planning today’s open data initiatives. A 2005 project, which identified the unexploited value of the data in local land records, now contributes to new thinking about the emerging field of policy informatics. Our work on capability assessment for information sharing, initially drawn from work with the justice community, contributed recently to an open data road map for the government of Nigeria and to new insights for NASA about its open data efforts.

In the spirit of our knowledge sharing philosophy and in celebration of our 20th anniversary, we offer these few timeless lessons to innovators everywhere who want to put IT to work better for government and service to society.  

Lesson 1  
Pay attention to Phase 0 — “before the beginning.”

In project after project, we’ve seen how untested — and even unspoken — assumptions at the outset almost guarantee unnecessary delay, expense and dysfunction down the line.

An example from a project to improve financial services to local governments highlights the need for what we call “before the beginning analysis.” The basic idea of this project was to standardize and share information about municipal finances among a half dozen regional offices and the state central office so problems could be spotted early and the right kinds of technical assistance could be offered at the right time. It was simple on the surface. However, half the project team started the initiative thinking this data resource was being created to assist state officials who work with local governments and the other half thought it was for local officials to use themselves. Different users, different goals, different expectations.

Practical Resources for Government Managers

One example of the resources developed by the CTG is the Government Information Sharing toolkit, a series of handbooks and guides designed for government professionals who are planning and implementing initiatives that rely on effective information-sharing. The toolkit includes the following:

Making Smart IT Choices: Understanding Value and Risk in Government IT Investments IT innovation is risky business in every organization. In the complex public-sector environment, these risks are even greater. This handbook is designed to help government managers evaluate IT innovations before deciding (with greater confidence) to make a significant investment.

Opening Gateways: A Practical Guide for Designing Information Access Programs This guide provides tools for creating information access programs that are effective, manageable and affordable.

Sharing Justice Information: A Capability Assessment Toolkit The justice enterprise faces many performance challenges that can be addressed more successfully through better information-sharing initiatives. This toolkit is designed for justice professionals to use when considering or planning for a justice information-sharing initiative.

Building State Government Digital Preservation Partnerships: A Capability Assessment and Planning Toolkit This toolkit is designed for library, archives, records management and IT professionals to assess where capability for digital preservation exists and where it must be developed in order to achieve the goal of preserving significant at-risk government information.

From the earliest projects, we learned that critical decisions and understandings like this have to made explicit “before the beginning,” that is, before a project team is fully established, before a timeline is set up, before the budget is allocated, and before any technology decisions are made. This “phase 0” is absolutely necessary. Don’t skip it because you can’t do a full-blown evaluation. Do what you can.

Start by identifying and listening to stakeholders, gather some basic descriptive and quantitative information about the situation, and investigate at least a few existing approaches taken by others. Think of this as a version of the 80-20 rule. Eighty percent of your problems down the road can be traced to skipping the 20 percent of effort you should have spent before the beginning.

Lesson 2  
Understand that capability is multidimensional.  

Innovative capability goes far beyond the technical aspects; it also encompasses policy and organizational capability — and the ways they influence each other.

Technical advances make many innovations possible, but technical expertise isn’t enough. You also need the capability to engender organizational and institutional adaptation and change. Research and experience both tell us that innovation planning and management regularly fail to critically assess the range of capabilities needed to succeed. Our view of capability helps innovators take into account the importance of context and four key characteristics of full capability.

First, capability is multidimensional — it comprises a variety of essential attributes: leadership, readiness, governance, policies, data assets, technical knowledge and more. All of these contribute to overall capability.

Second, capability is complementary — high or low overall levels of capability can result from different combinations of factors; high levels in some areas can often compensate for lower levels in others.

Third, capability is dynamic — it can increase or diminish due to changing conditions within an initiative or in its external environment.

And finally, capability is specific to its setting — some elements of capability apply to all settings, but capability for any particular project must be assessed relative to its own specific objectives and environment.

Think of these four characteristics as a checklist for approaching any innovation or problem-solving effort: Have you identified and considered all the relevant dimensions of capability? Have you mapped all the complementarities? Do you have a plan for responding to changing needs? And finally, are you confident that you understand the specific setting well enough to make these judgments? If the answer is yes in all cases, our experience says your project is much likelier to succeed than to contribute to the too-high failure rate of IT innovation.
Lesson 3
Learn to work across boundaries.

Over the past 20 years, essential public services and programs — such as building infrastructure, improving public safety and providing human services — have become the responsibility of complex inter-organizational networks of public, private and nonprofit entities. But using network-based strategies to meet complex societal needs demands the ability to work across boundaries — between departments, agencies, professions, sectors, governments, even nations. As a consequence, the ability to work effectively across boundaries has become a core competency for government professionals worldwide.

In our experience, the need to share information lies at the heart of these networks, and it often involves sharing information for a purpose that was not its originally intended use. The challenges in these initiatives increase proportionally with the number of boundaries crossed, the number and types of information sources to be shared, and the number of technical and organizational processes to be changed or integrated.

The challenges can differ widely in scope and detail. For example, an effort to increase case closure rates by linking multiple databases and case management processes in a district attorney’s office is less problematic than an enterprise-level initiative to create a statewide crime communications network. The first type involves units of a single organization operating under one executive leader. The second kind involves many separate organizations at several levels of government pursuing related but somewhat different objectives in diverse but overlapping programs with different policies, practices and data resources. Neither type is easy, but the second has special demands for governance, communication, problem-solving and resource sharing.

Innovative Solutions to Practical Problems

Creating and sharing knowledge is one of the founding principles of CTG. One way we live up to this principle is by translating the lessons we learn from working directly on problem-solving projects with governments into guidance documents and analytical tools and techniques that can be used by others with similar needs. One set of tools focuses particularly on helping governments build capability for innovation (see the sidebar).

Successful IT innovations and the transformation they seek to support, depend at least as much on the policy environment and how well the organizations and individuals perform as on the chips, networks and software. They involve understanding and working with the interdependencies among policy, management, technology and data within a specific context. And they start with a candid assessment of where they are before deciding how to get where they need to go.

We learned these lessons by working with some of the most innovative, dedicated and persistent public managers you’ll ever meet. We look forward to working with many more.

Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.