Obama`s IT Reality: Will It Be Change, or Just Hope?
When President-elect Barack Obama asked the Secret Service to find a secure way for him to continue using his Blackberry, it became clear that he is of the generation that likes the power of personal technology.
And it’s clear he has his own technology agenda for the nation, notably in making government transparent, involving citizens in its functioning, and in educating our children. Furthermore, he’s proposed the appointment of a national chief technology officer to make these reality.
The real reality is that he will face the same technology issues as any corporate CEO, only magnified by the sheer scope of the challenges, the often life-or-death nature of the tasks at hand, and the special difficulties of a political environment.
As is true for any organization, making good things happen with technology in government is primarily a management challenge, not a technological one. Technology investment must flow from a clearly articulated strategy, and technology must be deployed by and into organizational structures that are designed to make holistic decisions about it and to take full advantage of it.
This is the heavy lifting. Drawing up wish-lists is the easy part. Obama emphasizes open government and education, but there is no shortage of national needs that technology can address:
• The U.S. population grew nearly 20 percent between 1982 and 2001, but traffic increased 236 percent. Roadside sensors, radio frequency tags and global positioning systems can fit in where there is no room for more roads. A smart system in Stockholm has resulted in 22 percent less traffic and a 40-percent drop in emissions. London, Brisbane and Singapore are taking advantage of this technology.
• Intelligent oilfield technology can increase both pump performance and well productivity in a business where only 20 to 30 percent of the reservoir is actually extracted and produced into some form of energy. Meantime, we lose between 40 and 70 percent of our electrical energy due to “dumb” electric grids.
• Electronic health records and networking could eventually save $81 billion annually, by one estimate. Computerized Physician Order Entry—one component of EHR—increases patient safety by listing instructions for physicians to follow when they prescribe drugs to patients. It’s thought that CPOE could eliminate 200,000 adverse drug events and save about $1 billion per year if installed in all hospitals.
The Government Accountability Office has its own list of urgent technology priorities for the new administration:
• Preparing for and carrying out the 2010 Census
• Crucial large-scale modernization efforts at the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Internal Revenue Service
• Establishing information-sharing mechanisms to improve homeland security
• Protecting the federal government’s information systems and the nation’s critical infrastructures
I have no doubt that technology, particularly information technology, can do much more to address the problems we face. After all, the Wall Street trading room, the doctor’s office and the anti-terrorism command center are, in essence, information markets. The Social Security Administration, the IRS and the Federal Reserve Board are simply sifters of information.
These agencies deal in vital information, and yet they are little better than many other organizations in getting their information technology functioning well. It’s management, pure and simple.
According to the Government Accountability Office, the federal government plans to spend about $70 billion on IT projects during fiscal year 2008. Studying 778 major IT projects, which account for the bulk of the $70 billion, the GAO estimates that about half have been “rebaselined,” i.e., undergone changes in cost, schedule and performance goals. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Rescue 21 system is projected to experience cost increases of 184 percent and schedule delays of five years after rebaselining. Of the altered projects, half have been rebaselined at least twice. While often legitimate, rebaselining can be used to mask cost overruns and schedule delays.
These projects aren’t “nice to have”—they are integral to the departments’ missions. And the problem is plain and simple, according to the GAO: “Our analysis shows that agencies do not have comprehensive rebaselining policies.” It’s the management, not the technology.
The federal government has always played a major role in the nation’s technology evolution. In the years after World War II this role has included, perhaps most visibly, the development of the Internet, and somewhat less well-known, huge investments in hardware and software. The National Resource Council says:
The United States’ current leadership in high technology draws from substantial federal investments starting in the postwar period in the nation’s science and technology infrastructure. Key elements of this policy have included building a system of research universities and attracting foreign talent though scholarships and by providing academic freedoms and research facilities not available elsewhere. This institutional capital has to be upgraded and adapted to new needs and opportunities if the United States is to maintain its leadership as a knowledge-based economy.
Indeed, with all eyes on the economy today, it is important to understand the critical role technology plays in our well-being. The Council says:
The mechanism underlying the resurgence of U.S. economic growth has now come into clear focus. The surge was generated by the accelerating decline of IT prices, propelled by a shift in the semiconductor product cycle from 3 years to 2 in 1995. The price decline set off an investment boom that achieved its peak during the last half of the 1990s and has now recovered much of the momentum lost during the 2001 recession.
Investment in computers has been the predominant impetus to faster growth, but communications equipment and software investments have also made important contributions.
Those who govern at the federal level over the next five years will inherit the policy responsibilities for this success story: tax and other incentives that make this country attractive for technology manufacturing and research; policies that encourage young people to enter technology fields; private/government R&D partnerships that make possible what corporations can’t afford to do alone; and trade agreements with other nations.
The things that bother us the most—terrorism, the economy, health care, even just a better commute—have technological solutions. We expect the government to come up with them. Our politicians will succeed or fail largely on how well they manage the technology.
Faisal Hoque is chairman and CEO of BTM Corporation and author of a forthcoming book, The Convergence Scorecard, to be published by the Harvard Business Press. BTM innovates business models and enhances financial performance by converging business and technology with its unique products and intellectual property.
© 2008 Faisal Hoque