I started my career in government, running the IT operations of a college within a large state-funded university. While that's a far cry from the scale of federal agencies, I don't think the mind-set necessarily is. First rule of government: If you don't spend your budget, it'll be given to someone who will. We did our best to make great and clever use of the funds we had for the benefit of students, faculty, researchers, and staff, but I understood that a dollar saved was never going to trickle back to the taxpayers. Never.
As I read through our just-released InformationWeek Analytics report on new government IT initiatives, I get a sense of the frustration that public-sector tech leaders must feel. In one survey question, we asked government IT leaders about the perceived success of three important government initiatives: FISMA (security) HSPD-12 (unified ID management), and IPv6. All three were rated as moderate failures. Now, maybe some could be excused for thinking they have bigger fish to fry than IPv6, but security is at the top of everyone's list. How can it be that FISMA is allowed to be a bust?
We also asked government tech pros to rate their management challenges. At the top: lack of resources (money), and hiring and retaining IT talent.
This brings us to a good second rule of IT: If you're not sure you can at least come close to completing a project, don't start. Sure, we blew a few deadlines at the college, but by days and weeks, not years. But when you get told by the President and Congress to do things that simply can't be done with current funding, who do you push back against? Loop back to the sad tale of HSPD-12 and other massive resource draws and you have a bottomless well of systemic frustration.
Before you break out the violins, note that increasing transparency and lowering costs came in at the bottom of the list of management challenges. The first is a priority of the Obama administration, and the second is a priority for taxpayers--making these responses tone deaf in the face of trillion-dollar deficits. The answers also suggest a distinct lack of leadership. Of course, a constant challenge for any manager is to know what your team is and is not able to do--and be willing to ask for help when you're up against a demand you know you can't meet. Here again, our survey reveals some cognitive dissonance on the part of government IT managers.Art Wittmann is a former editor for InformationWeek. View Full Bio