Study: IT understanding lags among senior managers

Lack of long-term leadership from senior managers at all levels of government and a dearth of funding are the key obstacles to improving agencies' use of information technology, according to a new study published by Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

The study, "Information Technology and Government: The Need for New Leadership," concluded that "poor leadership on IT issues and initiatives is a significant drag on governmental performance." Half of the 418 public-sector IT professionals, general managers and elected officials surveyed for the project said top government leaders and legislators have little understanding of technology and how to use it.

"It is broadly perceived that they don't get it," said Jerry Mechling, director of the Kennedy School's Program on Strategic Computing and Telecommunications in the Public Sector, who presented the study last week at a press conference sponsored by IBM Corp.'s Institute for Electronic Government.

The study did not explore the reasons these decision makers are unaware of technology issues.

A second, smaller survey completed by IT managers at a Harvard workshop in January concluded that getting senior officials more involved in technology decisions and finding innovative sources of funding are among the most feasible ways of improving how government uses IT.

Other initiatives that survey participants recommended included educating program and political leaders, including IT programs in agency budget and planning procedures, and improving communications with potential supporters of technology projects outside the IT community.

IBM funded the study, which was designed to provide research-based advice to public-sector chief information officers. The study suggested in part that agency CIOs can help to improve leadership on IT issues by building "stronger relationships between the IT community and senior executives."

CIOs "must play a key role" as "interpreters" between agencies' technology staffs and top managers, the study said.

Meanwhile, the study recommended, agencies should focus on IT programs that offer "promising returns" with minimal risk, such as investing in networks and the Internet and using networks to deliver services to taxpayers and to conduct business electronically.

Mechling and co-author Thomas Fletcher also suggested that IT managers think more about how to resolve organizational conflicts and confusion about technology that can sink IT projects.

"Studies of behavioral feasibility tend to get short-shrifted," the study said, but understanding how stakeholders will respond to projects can help managers plan better strategies to make them succeed.

Also last week, the Institute for Electronic Government opened its new "Collaboratory" in Washington, D.C. The technology lab offers government officials support for pilot projects that demonstrate ways to improve agency operations using technology.

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