I just read an article reporting that the GAO finds that the
responsibilities of government CIOs largely resemble those of their non
government counterparts. (http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1895,1869922,00.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
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
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
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.
Keep up with the issues and challenges that
uniquely affect public-sector IT with TechRepublic’s free Government IT
newsletter, delivered each Tuesday. Automatically sign up today!