CIO challenges: Public vs. Private

I just read an article reporting that the GAO finds that the

responsibilities of government CIOs largely resemble those of their non

government counterparts. (,1895,1869922,00.asp)

The article says that the major difference between the two is in the challenges

that they face: private sector CIOs struggle to align themselves with business

goals, while public sector CIOs must overcome organizational obstacles and find

enough money to keep the lights on.

We needed a GAO study to tell us this? It is no great secret

that government faces the same IT hurdles as the private sector, plus the

additional challenges of: more regulation, fewer funds, constantly changing

executive leadership, frequent changes in mission and priorities, conflicting

missions and priorities due to having to be responsible to multiple masters

(administrations, legislatures, and the public), less flexibility, and greater

exposure/public oversight.

Given all that, you have to wonder sometimes how IT in

government functions at all? But despite these hardships/obstacles, government

IT shops perform -- and some of them quite well. To all of you working in the government IT realm, my hat is off to you.

However, even those that feel they are performing well know

deep down that they are lacking substantially in some areas and are doing the

best they can. Why? Generally, because of a lack of resources. And why the lack

of resources? Three main reasons: (a) a limited pool of funds, (b) competition

for those funds, (c) the reactionary nature of government.

The limited pool of funds refers to the fact that government's

primary source of income are taxes. Besides the fact that no one likes to pay

large amounts of taxes and thus the flow of incoming funds is regulated by how

little one can tax and still provide all the necessary services, the pool is

also regulated by how well the economy is doing. Economy is depressed = tax

revenues depressed = fewer funds to cover all the services the public expects

to receive.

The competition for funds refers to the intense battle over that limited pool of funds by all the

departments/agencies that provide services – either to the public or to keep

government running. It is in this area that IT tends to get short shrift as

they do not provide direct services to the public. It is those public-facing

units that tend to get the lions' share of funding. While IT in budget hearings

can generally talk about how decreases in funding will affect performance of

systems, etc., it usually isn't as jaw dropping as a Police Chief claiming that

without proper funding the streets will be rife with criminals. In fact, I once

knew a Chief of EMS who would answer requests for budget decreases with the

statement, "No problem commissioner, which district should I let people

start to die in?" That was usually pretty effective in stopping that line

of conversation.

The reactionary nature of government refers to the fact that

government -- as reflected by elected officials -- tends to mirror what is hot at

the moment with the public. This being the case, government tends to be

reactive rather than proactive.

All of the above combine to create a situation in which it

is almost impossible for IT to get the necessary funding to excel in all areas,

or in some cases -- operate adequately.

Two of the major areas where government IT shops are often severely

lacking because of the above are security and disaster prevention/recovery.

Why? Because they are expensive, they are insurance, and they are behind the

scenes. Face it, systems will run

without proper security, backup, and recovery capabilities. And for some of

those that provide IT funding, that is enough. We all know it is not wise to

operate that way, but for many it is a calculated gamble: Will it blow up on my

watch? And even if it does, the funders are never usually the scapegoat.

Thus, it is up to government IT shops to do the best that

they can with the limited funds provided. It's a pity the GAO didn't provide

any answers on how to solve this dilemma -- because their survey only proved

what we knew all along.

However, the GAO did point something out that we should take

note of. Public sector CIO's generally are charged with more operational

responsibility than private sector CIOs, such as architecture and strategic

planning. Thus, they (public sector CIOs) tend to spend more time tending to

the machinery rather than greasing the wheels. Find a way to reverse that

balance. Greasing the wheels will get you more in the long run.

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