Streamlining government and making it more responsive to citizens

Last week a diverse group of Industry executives were invited to meet with the President and his staff to offer their ideas on using technology to streamline government and make it more responsive to citizens. Memorable quotes reported from the meetings included… President Obama: "Many of these folks will tell you that their kids have better technologies in their backpacks and in their bedrooms than they have at their work." (NextGov Jan 14, 2010) And from OMB Director Peter Orszag: "The public is getting a bad return on its tax dollars because government workers are operating with outdated technologies." (TheHill.Com Jan 14, 2010) While leadership from the top is critical in stimulating appropriate use of technology to address government inefficiency, I doubt that Alienware gaming computers will do much to solve the problems that need to be addressed. Reasonably robust client-side and server-side web application error checking was available in 1995. Why then was Recovery.Gov launched with web forms that were unable to check if Congressional Districts matched the reporting zip code, if dollars spent exceeded dollars received, or if projects were reported as completed before ARRA funding was received? Even outdated technology could have prevented this embarrassment. Here are a few practical suggestions for those information technology professionals who are in the trenches, doing their best within the constraints of budgets, schedules, and staff resources.
  1. Engage well qualified support contractors with both Government and Industry experience. Too often support contractors are selected based on price. A contractor with high turnover who compensates staff on a 50 hour work week with no benefits and no commercial experience may not be the best value in helping to streamline government and make it more responsive to citizens. Product vendors often have highly skilled staff who are available to parachute in and help with an assessment or implementation for a few days or a week. They have no interest in a five year support contract. Really.
  2. Develop relationships with Industry peers. Exchange problem solving briefings and learn how peers outside of government have overcome obstacles similar to those that you are encountering. Recognize their collegial support and corporate citizenship - send  a letter to their Congressman.
  3. Educate your internal customers. Line of business managers need to understand both the potential and the limits of information technology. Encourage them to engage with their peers in Industry. To kick start the process, develop and give them a list of executive contacts with similar enterprise challenges who have leveraged technology successfully.
  4. Participate in benchmarking exercises through professional associations and encourage line of business managers to do the same. HR, Supply Chain, Information Security, Document Management, Data Center Operations, and many other lines of business have associations that work to develop, share and evolve best practices among their members through private benchmarking studies.
  5. If your Agency or Bureau does not have a center of excellence or other facility to test vendor products, identify an Agency that does and assess the value of the concept for your organization. Pick their brains about products that work and those that don't and why. Visit ( in person or remote) with vendors and resellers who have invested in product test centers where hardware and software is available in configurations that mirror your own, often in virtual testbeds accessible via the Web.
  6. Beware third-party 'objective' product evaluations. While they can be useful in conjunction with other actions discussed above, they are typically Pay-to-Play for the vendors being assessed.
  7. Do not insulate yourself from the vendor sales and marketing process. A quality marketing and sales organization will educate you and ensure that their product will meet your requirements. Good product sales staff will readily provide you with references for implementations of similar scale and complexity. Phone your peer for a candid discussion.
  8. Do not shy away from vendors who have no Government emblems on their customer logo page. In many cases they have decided that engaging with the public sector market is just too hard. If major commercial company brands have adopted their product, a closer look may reveal a gem.
The actions I have suggested require leadership and significant commitments of time on the part of Government IT professionals. The reward will be a respected, mature organization capable of delivering cost effective solutions that regularly succeed in solving the problem at hand.