IT is the glue to hold effective government together

The pressure on our government has never been greater. Never in our history has there been so much public scrutiny and second-guessing of every decision, and the urgency to reduce spending at every level only turns up the heat on government to try to do more with less.

Adding fuel to that fire is the new trend toward privatization. The recent Roles and Missions Commission study included specific language encouraging the outsourcing of some activities to private companies, including wholesale-level warehousing and distribution, weapons system depot maintenance and commercial-type activities, such as base and facility maintenance, data processing and others. The government's civil sector has already outsourced some activities and continues to review other potential candidates in the name of budgetary savings.

While turning the actual work over to private industry seems to take some of the pressure off government and should help reduce the cost of government, it does not lessen the management challenge of tracking and controlling operations. And our dedicated career civil servants will still take the heat if something goes wrong.

In spite of these immense pressures, the American public fully expects our government to be able to respond to crises ranging from fighting wars to dealing with domestic disasters, all while safeguarding the public interest. Are we asking the impossible from our government?

There is one way for the government to carry out its mandates in the face of these pressures: robust information systems that provide the efficiency required to operate with a squeezed budget and the control necessary to manage privatized operations. Done effectively, a modern information infrastructure can be the glue that holds effective government together.

Data is becoming a critical resource for the shrinking government work force. It is axiomatic that sound information systems facilitate intelligent decisions and enable the tight cost management the public demands. Just as importantly, however, is that information systems provide the necessary control, checks and balances needed to get the most out of privatization.

For example, consider a privatized government depot system. The private contractor will most likely use its own proprietary information systems for internal management. Meanwhile, the government will use its own systems to track maintenance planning, stock control, cost control, cataloging, distribution and so on. If the government's systems are sufficiently robust, relying on established commercial standards, then electronic data interchange will ensure the proper tracking and control. In addition, such a system will allow the government to view trends that may lead to changes in how the contractor is doing business. Finally, the information system, having become the core of the operation, will provide consistency and a smooth transition to new contractors, should that become necessary, or a transition back to government operation.

As government organizations move to establish chief information officers to rationalize capital investment budgets for information technology and to refine long-range visions, the commitment and resolve to build such systems will be strengthened. In the interim, the government can ill afford to take a short view and skimp on modernizing information systems as a cost-saving measure. Such a move could be catastrophic. Privatization may turn many operations over to private industry, but government cannot abdicate the role of setting standards and establishing a powerful information infrastructure. IT may be the only way the government can balance the lofty expectations of an efficient and smooth path to a balanced budget.

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Lyssy is vice president of advanced program support at Lockheed Martin Services Group.

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