June 22, 2008 By Todd Sander
Have you ever thought, "If it were up to me ...?" I'm sure you have. I know I have, especially recently. This year, people in the United States spend many hours listening to presidential candidates from across the political spectrum talk about how things could be, should be and will be if voters leave it up to them.
Candidates have more than enough to talk about: the economy, health care, education, taxes, among other things. However, America's continuing military involvement in Iraq has served to divide and define the candidates. Each of them makes a forceful case for how things will be when they're elected. Listening to the candidates debate, it occurred to me that regardless of your views about the past, present and future of American military policy, there are important and valuable lessons to be learned and some basic principles we can apply as local government officials when looking at large and complicated technology projects.
First, despite the way it sometimes seems, the initial planning and approval process for a major technology project may prove to be the easy part. At the beginning, the task is defining the need, identifying an approach and securing a commitment for the initial resources.
Embedded within the plans are assumptions about how long it will take, how well defined the issues are, the commitment of partners and participants, and the benefits the organization and community will receive. Experience has repeatedly shown, however, that once a project is under way, everyone's understanding of those things will likely change.
America's current military involvement began with a shared vision, but it quickly became apparent that sustaining that vision beyond the initial push would be a major challenge for the Bush administration. Hindsight being perfect, we now know that officials failed to fully appreciate what it would take to rebuild and repair the physical and organizational infrastructure in Iraq following the initial combat and to deal with the historical and political realities of that region. There was an assumption that Iraqi citizens would embrace democracy, and quickly and efficiently organize themselves into a new government. The original plans proved inadequate once the realities were better understood. Something initially viewed as quickly achievable has required a much greater sustained effort.
The federal government isn't the only one prone to underestimating the effort necessary to successfully execute an initial plan. Local governments sometimes don't adequately establish and maintain citizen and executive support for their efforts. Transformative changes to service delivery through enterprise resource management systems, community broadband infrastructures and citizen/customer relationship management systems are some of the high-profile activities that have politically withered because of extended schedules and lack of resources.
How do you increase the likelihood that your major initiatives will weather the uncertainties that will occur over time?
First, realize the challenge you're wrestling with or the opportunity you're looking to seize is probably one that someone, somewhere else has also identified. Geography, demographics and economics may vary among communities, but the services people need and expect from their local government remain fairly consistent. You can use this to your advantage.
The Digital Communities program has created and organized a community of peers and potential partners to help and advise those seeking to use technology to initiate changes and improvements for their residents. Innovators and leaders in those communities have learned the secrets for successfully navigating adversity. As part of your project, engage other communities that are familiar with issues that may be new to you. You can learn much from both their mistakes and successes.
Second, conduct a realistic assessment of your organization's capabilities and resources. Do you have the organizational capacity and human and financial capital to successfully implement the project? This is important whether you plan to develop something in-house or acquire it externally.
All over the country, community leaders are looking to boost economic development through various initiatives. One key element in many of those initiatives is the use of information technology. When local governments build IT infrastructure, create e-government applications, assist high-tech startups or otherwise focus on technology, they create conditions that draw businesses to their communities and help retain skilled workers. This paper discusses and provides examples of these various ways local government can use technology to ultimately make a community more attractive to businesses, visitors and residents.