Government Technology

Finding a Way

August 31, 2005 By

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

It's a quote we've all heard thanks to Mark Twain -- though Twain credited English novelist and Parliament member Benjamin Disraeli as the quote's originator.

The public sector probably wishes the statistics on retiring workers were lies, but the numbers paint a grimly truthful picture.

In more than 25 states, one in five employees will retire over the next five years, according to Grading the States 2005, a report from the Government Performance Project, a research program supported by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. A worst-case scenario is Tennessee -- it stands to lose 40 percent of its work force in the next few years.

CIOs aren't immune -- plenty of senior IT staff and management will be ready to retire too. The usual take on this coming retirement flood is dire: State and local governments will lose valuable institutional knowledge when the only people who know how to coax data out of those old IT systems leave their jobs.

The loss of experienced staff is a concern for CIOs, but the retirement issue is only part of a larger, interwoven set of work force challenges facing government IT shops. In addition to the retirement issue are:

  • a growing gap between the skills IT staff possess and the IT skills agencies need today, such as the ability to design and develop new Web-based applications;

  • a surprising lack of younger workers -- often due to civil service rules making the newest employees the first laid off when times get rough;

  • a lack of in-house IT talent -- especially at the federal level -- that can take on broader responsibilities such as project or contractor management; and

  • large numbers of older workers who have the skills to keep the old systems chugging, but often can't fathom the IT needs of younger, Web-savvy citizens.

    Indeed, some take a less bleak view of the number of government IT retirees, arguing instead that the institutional knowledge of legacy systems creates a mismatch of IT skills, which hinders efforts to modernize IT systems and applications. They contend that long-time staff members attempt to develop new applications using old technology, instead of adopting new Web-based approaches.

    Not OK in Oklahoma

    Edward Beck, executive director of IT for Oklahoma City Public Schools, said the district is upside-down in terms of IT staff knowledge and experience because the majority of senior IT staff and managers are well versed in legacy technology.

    That can impede progress, Beck said, because federal requirements, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, put new demands on school districts -- demands that districts could meet with new technologies.

    "There hasn't been a lot of funding until recently for the educational world to procure newer technologies," Beck said. "Some of the decisions they made at key points were entirely financially based. The typical thing to do is stick with what you know, and if what they know is 20 years old when they made the decision, then here five or 10 years later, obviously what we have in-house as far as systems is now a handicap."

    As a result, school districts, like government agencies, find themselves stuck with older systems that may work for some functions but don't necessarily match the needs of the modern world.

    "It's a challenge to change when you don't have the staff, and in the government world, you just can't change your staff," he said. "There's a little bit of a roadblock when you need to provide training or replace the person with an individual with a different skill set."

    Hiring new staff is difficult partly because of funding limitations, Beck

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