The 'browser mafia' must lead the IT revolution

Traditional mindsets slow organizational evolution

If you ask a public servant who is new to a job for a critique of how his or her office or agency functions, you can usually expect to receive an earful. They are dissatisfied by seemingly arcane processes and enigmatic rules. But in time, if they survive, they might be the ones who set the rules. That’s fine for periods of relative stasis, but not for times of crisis, such as the one we're in now.

Scholars of bureaucracy, including Max Weber and my fellow Federal Computer Week columnist Steve Kelman, have studied how public organizations function and what induces change within them. Consensus on strategies for organizational change is often fleeting, but in our time, there is one point of general agreement: Information technology is a catalyst for fundamental change in public and private organizations.

Technologies are not isolated from bureaucratic process, and technology adoption cannot be divorced from practice. It is frustrating when technologies outpace organizations' capacity to reorganize and adapt to them. Some members of an organization might see value in a new technology, but others see it as disrupting an established and proven order that serves their view of the organization.

Setting aside theories of public management, we are now at a pivotal point in how government will employ IT. The old mindset is one of hierarchy, big programs, mass creation of code and process-driven functionality designed to replicate predigital organizational forms. The opposite mentality is a horizontal, participatory mode of activity that embraces technology that is ready, available, and easy to use and modify. The latter appears to be a promising avenue for reforming and reinventing government.

Many of the newly installed federal agency leaders seem to get this, as do the new hires. Most others don’t. Those in the skunk works of a bureaucracy — in chief information officer shops, tech offices and other oddball bureaus — put their time and effort into attempting to steer their organizations in a different direction, with IT as the core component of their agenda. Some organizations are more open to new ideas than others. In those where resistance to change is entrenched and well-fortified, the mindset of those choosing to oppose the status quo can seem downright desperate.

In situations in which the struggle of ideas largely occurs underground, enlightened public servants must move beyond what Richard Haass calls bureaucratic entrepreneurship and rebel, becoming full-fledged bureaucratic insurgents. Following such a path should not be taken lightly because careers can be harmed, but some have made great change by banding together and challenging the status quo.

Take, for example, the Fighter Mafia of the 1960s and '70s, who felt the Pentagon was letting down the Air Force and Navy with overly complicated, overweight fighter designs. They pushed for small, light and simple aircraft, with the result being the F-16 and F-18, by all accounts a pair of successful aircraft that are still in service.

So to bring new ideas in federal IT, we will need a "browser mafia" that dumps clunky old applications, big projects and the rest of what is wrong with government computing and demonstrates that problems can be solved with open-source software, Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language, social media, and a liberal dose of agile development.

Stay tuned for additional political communiqués.

About the Author

Chris Bronk is a research fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and an adjunct instructor of computer science at Rice. He previously served as a Foreign Service Officer and was assigned to the State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy.

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