September 3, 2013 By John Martin
For 24 years, I ran a Harvard program in which government information-technology leaders worked together for several days at a time on emerging problems. At the end of those sessions, which assembled people from all over the world, a common comment was, "Well, at least I don't work for the U.S. federal government!" They were referring to the difficulty of getting a critical mass of leaders to commit to handling the risks required for major IT-driven problem-solving.
The big benefits of IT occur when digital information enables government workers to change how they work -- by reaching the public through 311 customer-service systems, for example, or by tackling challenges through "stat" or other problem-solving and accountability systems. That kind of innovation is difficult -- even impossible -- when senior program managers and elected leaders are positioned too far away from the IT staff, as they typically are in larger governments at every level.
When IT staff and ideas can't get into the problem-solving game, they can't make much of a contribution. As a result, many government-technology managers still are stuck in old "support center" roles. They are not expected to solve big problems, only to help operate new programs after they have been approved. IT is told, in effect, to stick to its knitting.
But there are ways to bring IT in on the big issues earlier in the process. Here are five routes:
Economic development: Governments that take job creation and economic development seriously must, in today's world, start with information infrastructure and digital services. With manufacturing long globalized, service jobs now are being moved to places that can supply digitally capable workers supported by trustworthy, Internet-based collaboration. For an example of the kind of dramatic growth that is possible, look at Singapore. Based largely on government-developed digital infrastructure and services, Singapore has attracted global corporations and progressed from a per-capita income of $511 a year in 1965 to more than $56,000 in 2010.