When I tried – and failed – to convince my 8th-grader son to pursue what we call “classical high school” in Italy, which focuses on human science and the study of old languages like Latin and ancient Greek, it was because I am deeply convinced that Greeks laid the basic foundations of most disciplines. Poetry, theater, philosophy, sculpture, architecture, math, astronomy, and of course democracy and policy-making, they had them all. Some of their masterpieces and achievements have well passed the test of times, and quite often one can make reference to one of those to find inspiration to understand and cope with today’s events.
What does this have to do with government and IT? Well, yesterday President Obama hosted a meeting at the White House with a number of Deputy Secretaries and leaders from the IT industry, as reported by NextGov. In this meeting the discussion revolved around how far behind government is in the use of technology, how business leaders can show the way to transformation and efficiency, and so forth.
While it is true that many government business processes are outdated and the adoption of technology in government is painful, I would remind President Obama and in particular his IT savvy staff, of what Ulysses did in Homer’s Odyssey.
During his long return to Ithaca, Ulysses was told by Circe to be very careful while sailing close to the coast of the Sirens’ Island: in fact these nymphs had the power of enchanting sailors with their songs, driving them to self destruction. Circe advised Ulysses to get their ears closed with wax and to strap himself to the mast, instructing his men not to release him at any cost. That way, in spite of Ulysses’ personal struggle, the ship passed unharmed.
The same applies to when business leaders, including those who lead IT companies, sing the song of how technology can let government run like a business. It is important to listen but not necessarily to change course the way those Sirens suggest.
Let me offer a few reasons for this (although it would be best to podcast them into the earbuds of Obama’s staffers while they sail across the business and vendor Sirens’ Island).
1. Government is not a business, hence cannot be run like a business
I stressed this in an earlier post in response to the “government as a platform” line used by O’Reilly and other Gov 2.0 pioneers and enthusiasts. I recalled Mintzberg’s classification of relationships between government and its constituent:
customers: these concern the most transactional services, such as filing for taxes or being given a license to start a business;
clients: we are client of education, health care or human services, i.e. where government delivers something like a professional service;
citizens: as Mintzberg says, we “have rights that go far beyond those of customers and even clients”. As citizens, we have the right to vote and express our opinion about how well government performs
subjects: we have obligations as much as we have rights, and we are subject to the government authorities in areas like justice, taxation, etc.
Looking at citizens only as “customers” or “clients” is clearly limiting. Therefore, while experiences from the private sectors are certainly interesting, they may not always be appropriate to deal with this much more complex network of relations, which vary by government domain and tier.
Sometimes in government a certain degree of inefficiency (if measured by private sector standards) is necessary to strike the balance between those multiple relations. Processes that could be re-engineered for complete self service do employ people, who need to be reskilled in order for them to become useful contributors to the society and economy, and for which jobs need to be available.
After all, when major players in industry sectors that have been beacons in the use of technology almost went bust, the calls on government were not for efficiency but for saving jobs.
Which leads me to my second point.
2. Technology has not prevented businesses in all sectors from tanking during the recent crisis
We all agree that technology helps transparency and efficiency in business processes. But then, what happened to those enterprises that tanked during the recent crisis? Didn’t IT help them anticipate the problems? Didn’t their scorecards and dashboards and performance management tools ring any bell?
Government cannot afford to be too aggressive in the use of technology because it is the lender, savior or employer of last resort. It should learn from businesses not only the shining successes but also the outright failures that were, if not caused, certainly unaddressed by technology.
3. Government is the most complex enterprise on Earth
Finally it is fair to say that there is no single organization that is as complex as government. Some agencies or departments are as large as multinationals, and manage larger budgets. But they are all like divisions of a larger enterprise, which is the whole of government. For how much we can dream of value chains and supply chains, because of those four different relationships that Mintzberg highlighted, government is a far more complex network, with a comparatively higher set of compliance and transparency requirements than any other industry sector.
How many enterprises have 300 million clients to whom they provide a broad range of services? And yet, governments have made historical accomplishments, such as sending men on the moon, or saving the lives of thousands of people in natural disasters.
Of course it is important to learn how other industries are leveraging technology, and it is important to pursue customer service, operational efficiency, mission effectiveness by innovating processes and empowering employees through new technologies. But it is equally important to constantly remind ourselves as well as our business counterparts and IT suppliers that government is and will always be different.
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