Why Government is Like IT
This is my site Written by Alora on January 28, 2009 – 7:36 pm

As the debate about the best approach to an economic stimulus package rages, I am reminded time and again of the conversations I’ve had throughout my career with non-IT executives when it comes to IT work. Coming from an IT background, of course, I have often found the conversations frustrating, unrealistic and short-sighted, which is much the same reaction I find myself having to the current economic debate. This has led me to seeing some surprisingly strong parallels between the two vastly different worlds.

“I don’t really care about it, as long as it works.”

The IT Version: “We don’t need more help desk staff. Make do with one person per shift.” The first time someone with a “C” in their title has to spend 45 minutes on hold to have their network password problem resolved, suddenly the importance of support desk headcount takes on new significance. Or (another favorite) what about the exec who thinks the top-of-the-line SLA package is “too expensive” — until a mid-day outage doesn’t get resolved “fast enough?”

The Government Version: “Tax cuts! Tax cuts! Tax cuts!” And then after standing in line at the DMV for two hours in the middle of the week, all you hear from the frustrated people watching their day slip by is, “How long does this have to take?” And, “I can’t believe they only have two people on shift when there is a line out the door!”

The problem: The things in life that we take for granted are often the ones we most resent paying for — and then we get mad when we are inconvenienced because of it. How many people surf on their neighbors’ wireless and then get upset when it goes down and they suddenly have no internet access? Ditto with pirated cable, or free coffee at the office that suddenly goes away when times are tight. We develop a sense of entitlement that makes us react very emotionally to change.

“It’s a bottomless pit with no ROI.”

The IT Version: Email Servers and Corporate Network integrity are the “plumbing” items in an organization that people often forget need constant care and feeding to stay healthy. But organizations rarely have a good way of calculating the cost to the business if either one of things fail. People have become so used to taking them for granted, that they stop thinking about them as systems with risks that need to be managed. Even worse, when times are tight we get in the habit of cutting back as a “temporary” measure, and end up neglecting routine maintenance. And then when things eventually blow up, we have a much bigger bill than anyone was expecting.

The Government Version: Public works are the government version of “plumbing” that people just expect to be there, but never seem to be ok having to help pay for. We all want smooth roads that don’t mess up our car’s alignment, we want to turn on a light switch and have the electricity work as we expect and we all want to know that when we turn on the faucet that the water coming out of it isn’t going to give us cancer. And the idea that we should continue to waste billions of dollars per year in electrical outages due to an over-taxed, patch-worked national electrical grid that we’ve outgrown instead of building a modern, more efficient one that more closely meets our needs is somehow a “dangerous” sign of “big government run amok.”

The problem:Infrastructure is not a one-time cost. It’s a big up-front cost followed by on-going maintenance costs. And after a while, it’ll take another big up-front cost, because whatever solution you put in place will eventually be so out-dated or so far beyond repair, that there will be no choice but to replace it. Duct tape and bailing wire are short-term band aids, not permanent solutions. We often make penny wise, pound foolish decisions as a result of procrastinating tackling big problems — and then get upset at the cost. (“Who needs to pay $40 every three months for an oil change? What a rip-off!” Until, of course, you’re stranded on the side of the road in a blizzard waiting for AAA to haul your car to a garage where you find out that your warranty is void because you haven’t had an oil change in a year.)

“It’s too expensive. Why can’t you do it for less?”

The IT Version: Hardware is expensive. Software is expensive. Trained staff is expensive. So we cut back. We outsource. We consolidate roles to hire fewer people. We buy off the shelf instead of customizing. We learn to work around inefficiencies in order to ‘make do’ without stopping to calculate the cost to the business of each employee wasting X hours per week on something that could be automated for $Y. We focus on tactical, short-term need instead of strategic, long-term value.

The Government Version: Programs are expensive. Staff is expensive. Systems are expensive. Taxes are unpopular and tax cuts are always popular. So we cut trim programs to cut taxes. And then we get upset when, after standing in line for two hours at the DMV, the frazzled clerk behind the counter has to fight with a 15 year old dot matrix printer feed jam and we can’t just be on our way. Even worse for all of us is the fact that, when it’s time for an organization to hire new employees, most of the best candidates are going to look around and decide to take the job or not at least based in part by the environment. And environments where they are going to have their hands tied by ten year old technology or are being told that they can’t get to Google to look things up as part of network security procedures is something that drives the best candidates away.

The problem: For the first time in history, people have better technology available to them at home than they have at work — and part of the reason for that is cost. The ‘personal use’ versions of technology solutions are often small enough that we gradually get used to incorporating them into our regular budgets (think cable TV or cell phones: once upon a time, no one would have thought paying for either would be “normal” for the average person). However, the enterprise versions for solutions are often very, very pricey and many times organizational leaders (in private industry and government) never quite recover from the sticker shock.

“What do you mean we need to implement something new? That current solution is only ten years old!”

The IT Version: “We paid $10 million for that solution back in 2002 specifically so that we wouldn’t have to replace it until at least 2012. Why are you asking for money to replace it now?” This may be the hardest ones for non-technical leaders to understand, but we do not live in a mainframe world anymore, where you can make a single investment like that and then expect to nurse it until you’re old and gray. IT investment now, though in many instances much smaller on an individual basis, is more constant, because disruptive technology (to say nothing of an entire wired workforce) forces adaptation at a rate previously unknown.

The Government Version: Government has a double-whammy in this regard, because in addition to facing this argument when it comes to traditional government services (i.e. rising health care costs for agency employees and Veterans) that are blowing out previously committed budgets, but they also have the IT problem within government itself: citizens are used to being “customers” who have access to a certain degree of services (many of which are technology driven), and then get frustrated when they walk into a government agency and have to fill out a form by hand, in triplicate, so that someone can crawl around a storage room for two hours to find a box that has the record we are looking for, and them make us a low quality photo copy for us to take home.

The problem: The budgeting process, in both government agencies and most corporations, is reflective of a long-dead set of business and technology models that no longer apply to how organizations work — largely because of end user expectations. Yet anyone who has been in either a large company or a government agency is all too familiar with the painful process that demands a lot more creative writing than actual concrete predictions, and usually for too far out. Sure, we can predict roughly how many Windows licenses are reasonable to expect for the next year or two, but saying that we are going to redesign the website this year with the expectation of not needing to touch it again for five years is ridiculous.

I’m sure that many of these parallels can be applied to other industries, as well, but as a political junkie and a technology professional, these are the ones that are most readily visible to me. And, as with most things, what this often leaves me with is a sense of resigned frustration at the predictability of the human animal — because these issues, at their core, are about attitudes, resistance to change, and sticking to doing things the way they’ve always been done, regardless of any real track record of success. And those are always the biggest management hurdles, no matter what your industry.

Agree? Disagree? Did I miss any other parallels? Leave a comment to let me know!