Over the last several months, we have seen countless examples of disruption and unrest that root back to the worsening financial and economic situation in many jurisdictions around the world. Unrest in North Africa, riots in Greece, protests in Spain and in Italy, often fueled by the use of social media, are challenging established government organizations around the world. One might consider these as exceptional situations, caused by peculiar political conditions or weak financials in those jurisdictions. But I believe these are early signs of a more structural change that will address almost all governments around the world.
If there is one thing that government in growth economies like China or Brazil have in common with financially challenged ones in most of the EU, this is “sustainability”. How can governments in hot economies sustain the pace of development in infrastructure, skills and services that is required to support the amount of change? How can government organizations in countries that are dangerously close to defaulting ensure their current service levels? How can departments retain skills that are key to their operations when most of their staff retire over the next few years?
It is no longer a matter of “aligning IT with the business”, but to put IT at the center of solving problems that either look intractable or have been underestimated for too long.
The term we use to highlight a fundamentally new attitude in leveraging technology is “smart government”. This should not be confused with concepts like “smarter government” or “smart city”, which several vendors use to indicate the integration of information and operational technologies, mostly at the local level, to manage and operate various infrastructures – such as water pipes, electrical grid, public transportation network – as a coherent set of city subsystems rather than as individual, siloed areas. Of course at the local level these approaches are important for sustainability, but they do not coincide with smart government.
Being a “smart government” implies using technology in an affordable and sustainable fashion. Affordability is key to make sure that smart, innovative solutions do not fall at the bottom of the priority list, when managing portfolios during tough times. In the past we have seen countless initiatives dubbed like “e-government” or “joined-up government” promising tangible improvements in government service delivery and operations, which went nowhere due to their cost, complexity, excessive time to benefit realization (if any). Some of those initiatives are probably still important, but need to be broken down into smaller chunks, each of which provides measurable value, and is capable of evolving toward increasingly complex but also sustainable systems.
The term “smart” is unfortunately already overloaded with multiple meanings. Vendors like IBM, Cisco, Siemens, Microsoft, Oracle and several others have used variations of this term to mean different things. In some cases it is about more effective and efficient coordination of different subsystems and infrastructure – such as sewage, energy grid, waste management, public transportation – in an urban area. In other cases it is about better data analytics to support better decision making. But, terminology confusion aside, these approaches and technologies are all trying to address very similar issues, and in particular how to ensure that the operations and services made available in a particular jurisdiction or in a particular domain across multiple government levels can be sustained over time.
This certainly calls for new technologies, but also for new architectural approaches, new governance styles and new ways of sourcing both business processes and technology. The immediate risk though, when there is so much change involved, is that the different stakeholders involved get lost in complexity. This is what happened with e-government, joined-up government and other transformative endeavors.
What must set smart government apart from all these is that both the outcome and the way to achieve the outcome have to be smart. This calls for more tactical, bottom-up, piecemeal approaches, rather than “big bang” ones. While traditional transformation initiatives assume (and require) strong, continued leadership, smart government ones need to factor in the failure of leadership and the inevitable struggles of enterprise-wide governance.
I appreciate that this turns on its head some of the principles that have informed government actions on IT for many years. I also appreciate that this may be unwelcome to government executives who relate their relevance and influence to the size of the programs and budgets they are responsible for. Nor will this be liked by many vendors, especially the incumbents – be they product or service vendors or system integrators – who have established long-term, healthy relationships with their government clients.
But is there choice? If jurisdictions struggling with shrinking financial resources and skills want to innovate and position themselves to successfully face the 21st century challenges, they have to change. And they have to change fast.