Gazing into the future

Predictions can be dangerous because so often they end up being wrong. Few predicted the popularity of cell phones, laptop computers or share-in-savings contracts 10 years ago?

But predictions, largely because they are often wrong, can also be the genesis of great ideas. Gazing into the future allows us to view the world as it someday could be and we can take a new and different look at decisions we are making today.

Last week, during Federal Computer Week's Government CIO Summit in Amelia Island, Fla., we asked the experts to gaze into the future. As a result, they came up with eight ideas that, if enacted, will help improve the government of the future.

1 Embrace workforce turnover

Janet Barnes, chief information officer at the Office of Personnel Management, believes that no amount of energy spent on recruiting and retaining high-tech workers will let agencies escape staff turnover.

No one likes to lose the skills and institutional knowledge that employees take with them. But such situations are inevitable because information technology professionals live for changes and challenges, Barnes said. "Turnover is a fact of life, and we need to face it and we need to embrace it."

Instead of dragging their feet and denying the truth, agency officials should position their organization to handle staff turnover, she said.

For example, given the state of the economy, agencies have an opportunity to hire some all-star employees. Even if they may only stay for a couple of years, agencies should take advantage of the time they are there by maximizing their skills throughout the organization rather than limiting them to one project or group.

Instead of assigning staff members to individual projects, agencies could have specialized workers with similar capabilities work together on a group of projects. That way, when one worker leaves, all expertise would not be lost.

Overall, make sure the organization is equipped to handle the loss of employees, Barnes said. "Creatively work that side of the problem with the same energy you are applying to retention," she said.

2 Join CIOs and CFOs at the hip

The role of the government CIO position, in flux since its creation in 1996, is likely to remain a subject of debate for years.

Most government officials agree, though, that the CIO and the chief financial officer cannot work in isolation anymore than IT planning and IT spending can be separated in any realistic way.

Some officials take it one step further, saying top-level officials of all stripes

— chief procurement officers, chief technology officers, chief administrative officers and the like — should be involved in IT

planning.

Otherwise, a CIO could choose a project while the project managers circumvent the CIO to request funding from the CFO, even as the procurement folks are starting to contract out the work.

Department of Housing and Urban Development officials got around this problem by defining a new process for managing their portfolio of projects, said CTO Gloria Parker. Their strategy includes a board of four top-level officials who gather to review project proposals before they are sent to an executive committee for approval. Each part of the organization also must approve the project again as it reaches various stages, she said.

3 Keep CIOs and CFOs separate but equal

Elsewhere, some observers have suggested taking the CIO/CFO link even further, by making the positions one and the same. However, that would be a mistake, officials said last week.

"Clearly a CIO can be both, but should a person be both? In my opinion, no," Parker said.

Each discipline — tracking technology and managing finances — requires the focus of a senior manager, Parker and other officials said. Furthermore, the two should be equal, rather than having the CIO report to the CFO.

One way to effectively blur the lines is to select a CIO who was previously a CFO, said Marguerite Moccia, former CFO and now CIO at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "It can be very complementary," she said. "The CFO understands the outcomes, the mission and technology."

Val Oveson, Utah's CIO, took the debate one step further, saying a department's chief executive officer should be the CIO. The CEO has the best grasp on an organization's business and vision, he said.

4 Deal with obsolescence

Technological evolution inevitably involves displacement, as new ideas and processes push out the old. But if history has taught us anything, it's that the transition is not always easy.

As mayor of Indianapolis during the 1990s, Stephen Goldsmith cajoled city departments to incorporate technology into their paper-driven operations. But Goldsmith learned during his tenure that technology would never have significant impact if paper was kept in the process.

For example, when Goldsmith took office, the city required companies applying for permits to submit maps with their applications. He attempted to simplify the process by introducing digital maps, which were easier to review and store.

Years later, he found city employees were still referring to the paper maps when approving permits. The technology was there, but the process had not changed at all. As one of his last acts as mayor, Goldsmith had the old maps confiscated and burned. Sometimes that is the only way to bring about change, he said.

Obsolescence is a constant threat. "In 1989, I succeeded in creating the perfect mainframe system — on the very day that mainframe systems became obsolete," Goldsmith said.

5 Rethink the network

Future technology will likely enable agencies to adopt more of a holistic approach to networked communications.

These days, everyone has adjusted to the idea of staying in contact with their office through mobile phones, wireless computers and handheld devices. But they still discriminate between the in-office network and their mobile network. Those lines will eventually blur.

Defense Department officials see the potential to create an integrated network environment that supports high-speed wireless links, cellular networks and other alternatives, said Ronald Jost, director of wireless at DOD. That is where commercial industry is heading, he said.

Meanwhile, DOD officials want to stretch the boundaries of wireless networks. They are working with industry to develop protocols for ad hoc networks, which would enable soldiers to stay connected with one another while they are on the move and away from a fixed network infrastructure.

Department officials may be ahead of industry in their vision of unstructured infrastructures, but Jost believes vendors will expand on DOD's work to develop commercial applications.

6 Engineer for privacy

The best technology is not always the best solution, especially in the field of homeland security, where privacy is a constant concern.

Although many people view privacy concerns as a constraint on better security, systems designed with privacy in mind are more likely to make people safer, argued privacy advocate Jeffrey Rosen.

Rosen, associate professor at George Washington University's law school, makes his point by postulating a "naked machine." Government officials could improve airline security by designing a machine that allows airport officials to electronically strip-search passengers. The system would reduce security screening to mere seconds, but the catch is that everyone would see the passenger naked.

People might be willing to sacrifice their modesty to feel safer, but that should not be necessary, Rosen said. Instead, the government could design a system that scans passengers without compromising privacy. The system, for example, might project a less distinct image — more of a "blob machine," he said.

DOD's proposed Total Information Awareness program, designed to collect information on individuals from various databases, failed to strike that balance and is now defunct, Rosen said.

In contrast, the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II program has the potential to actually improve safety because agency officials considered privacy concerns and imposed limits on the use of passenger data.

The responsibility belongs to government IT workers to design systems that strive for better national security and adhere to necessary privacy protections. "The only people who can save us are our government CIOs," Rosen said.

7 Keep e-gov in perspective

When officials at the Homeland Security Department listed their top technology priorities, e-government was conspicuously absent. This wasn't an oversight, said DHS CIO Steve Cooper.

DHS officials see the value of e-government and are working with other agencies on numerous initiatives. But they do not believe e-government should be viewed as distinct from the department's business processes, Cooper said.

"We believe that if you are creating something solely for the sake of addressing the 24 e-government initiatives, you're doing something that probably isn't central to the business," Cooper said.

That's missing the spirit of e-government, according to a few IT officials.

By contributing often minimal amounts of funds and energy to the initiatives, nonmission-critical areas of the department, such as payroll or travel, can become more efficient, which would efficiently free more resources for the mission.

In essence, there is a certain amount of "taking one for the team," as one IT professional put it, that's required for e-government to work.

8 Keep sight of e-democracy

When most people think of e-government, they think of online transactions: applying for permits, filing taxes or renewing car tags. Chris Lee, executive director of administrative services for Mobile, Ala., sees greater potential.

The basic tools of e-government, such as e-mail and interactive Web sites, can also be the tools of representative democracy.

For people already politically engaged, the Internet may offer nothing new, Lee said. "But it can be a real plus in that it can offer an alternative channel for those constituencies who traditionally have been disenfranchised," he said.

One such group is the twenty-somethings who generally sit on the political sidelines. These young, technologically savvy would-be voters may find the Internet an amenable venue through which to make their voices heard.

Another often overlooked group is senior citizens. Recent years have shown that older people can learn computer skills, given access and training. The same is true of the poor. Libraries and community centers can open doors to greater political

participation.

It's up to elected officials, though, Lee said. E-democracy can pay dividends "if elected officials build the demand," he said. If they resist it, "it will be an uphill battle."

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