On input and innovation

An odd tension exists between leadership and innovation. It takes a strong leader to change the way an organization does business. And although any change requires the buy-in of many people, one individual, with vision and leadership skills, often emerges as the de facto change agent.

Yet any organization that draws repeatedly on the inspiration of one individual, however visionary they may be, eventually runs aground. The best leaders instinctively know to expand their own thinking by drawing on the ideas of those around them.

Officials at the Agriculture Department clearly understand this. Late last month, USDA officials announced they would form an advisory council with the sole purpose of evaluating the department's e-government initiatives. The council will bring together users from across the country to provide input as systems are developed.

The timing makes sense. During the last several years, the USDA and most other agencies have made initial forays into e-government, offering basic information and services online. Agency officials have learned a lot in the process about the technology, policies and management challenges that come with online operations. But if agencies are to advance e-government, they need a fresh perspective.

They should more deeply probe the impact e-government services have on the user community. How could these services be improved? Of all the possible services that could be moved online, which ones would have the best impact?

Some agencies have taken a step in the right direction by assembling focus groups to provide feedback on applications under development. The USDA, though, is taking it much further, giving users a standing role in the creative and planning process.

A committee, of course, is never a substitute for strong leadership. In the end, USDA officials must absorb this input and craft a plan that advances the department's e-government strategy. But the fact that this council was proposed at all suggests that leadership is hardly lacking. n

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