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Don't Get Stuck on Stupid

Reviewing another year in the life of the public-sector IT community.

by / December 8, 2005
The year 2005 may be remembered as the year RSS and podcasting came to government Web sites, or the year Google became the search engine of choice for almost 50 percent of all state portals, or the year that automated tools for compliance and performance management, or the year that bringing mainframe disciplines to the server floor made important inroads into public-sector IT.

But by saying that, we'd be getting ahead of ourselves.

This page is not above being held accountable for its year-end picks that would meet the test of Father Guido Sarducci's 5 Minute University -- namely the very few things that still matter five years after the fact. So let's review this Yuletide tradition since its inception.

In 2003, the year-end retrospective anticipated the long-term hangover of industry consolidation in both hardware and software, the unpaid bill for information security and the tussle among friends about what should be done about offshoring IT jobs. It may have been too optimistic about the prospect of networked collaboration -- there are, however, three years left on the clock -- and got it just about right in assessing pent-up demand behind new baseline budgets after the public-sector revenue recession.

The 2004 sequel pointed with fascination and alarm to the concentration of almost half the U.S. population in two generations, the millennials and their boomer parents, who change everything they touch -- including government.

It mused that the commercialization of open source was all about becoming what you rebel against, and consolidation of public-sector IT did not necessarily require Soviet-style centralization. Left unanswered in the recent rash of consolidation is, to what ends? Blocking and tackling makes sense en route to a goal -- but it has been a long time since there was a unifying vision or larger public purpose articulated for inflicting all this pain.

The sequel also declared the bankruptcy of doing more with less -- a transitional mantra that New York CIO Jim Dillon railed against this year, right up to his retirement this month after more than a quarter century in the arena.

Finally it lamented the long-term effects of cracked foundations and the "failure of imagination" in public service, documented by the 9/11 Commission. The hundreds of billions of dollars spent on homeland security in the interim, we were all assured by federal officials, would make government more responsive next time.

The "next time" came on Aug. 20, 2005, and reshaped the 5 Minute University view of the year just passed around a single name -- Katrina.

In agonizing detail, we witnessed widescale failure of communications, infrastructures and institutions across the Gulf Coast states. The subsequent pummeling by Rita and Wilma only underscored the systemic problems in government preparedness and response.

We note the heroism of individuals who selflessly worked to provide rescue, aid and comfort despite the systemic failure -- including public servants and volunteers. The Internet was the vehicle of choice for people contributing to record-breaking levels of nongovernmental relief funds and helping survivors reconnect with their families who were scattered across the country.

The images from the disaster zone forced us to confront the fact that the real divide in this country has precious little to do with digital.

But predictably and cynically Katrina became the new homeland security as a fresh, big bucket of money that became the target for all manner of opportunistic behavior. The hearings, investigations and commissions will examine the entrails of all this to lay blame for both inadequacies and excesses.

The recommendations of the forthcoming official reports will do well to match the commonsense, on-the-ground judgment of Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore. Even as water was still being pumped out of New Orleans, a reluctant Honore told National Public Radio that he would begin fixing things with a satellite-based communications system and a FEMA Web site that could actually be used by displaced people looking for aid.

"I promised myself I wouldn't get into this, and I'm trying to stay in the middle of the lines ... I sense the frustration," he said. "We're going to stay after it, and we'll continue to get better at it."

If that wasn't enough, Honore also gave us the year's best bit of folk wisdom, which is worthy of being posted in every conference room in world -- "Don't get stuck on stupid."

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Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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