Ivory Towers and Electronic Government

As information technology's advance approaches Mach speed, how can state and local government professionals-not just the usual public-sector IT crowd-keep pace with emerging applications? Well, serious collaboration between the public sector and the university community may help shorten the learning curve.

Professionals in any field have historically looked to universities to offer programs to help them stay current in their disciplines.

But the academic sector apparently does not have the interest in-or capacity for-helping foster the integration of IT and public-sector education. In the IT arena, higher-education support is just not there yet.

There are several reasons for this. Schools of public administration, public affairs and public policy have always been plagued by a dichotomy between theory and practice. The basic educational approach has been to transmit a particular body of theory to students but not to engage in the "how-tos" of program implementation.

On the flip side, university programs that do have IT as their mainstay-offering degrees in computer science, telecommunications and engineering-may know their stuff, but they usually don't know much about applying it in the public sector. And for that matter, they don't seem to care much.

The state of academic written analysis on public-sector IT is not much better. Academic textbooks always had a short half-life. But not only is there not a textbook for public-sector IT applications, there isn't even a coherent body of literature on the subject. The people who know most about it are in the field, and they most likely haven't stepped inside a university since they picked up their diplomas.

There are exceptions, of course. The University of Albany's (N.Y.) Center for Technology in Government has done some fine work in bridging the gap between academia and the public sector by engaging in IT projects with government partners to enhance citizen service delivery.

Last fall, I fulfilled my own dream of bridging the gap by teaching a new course for the University of Colorado's Graduate School of Public Affairs on public-sector technology. The purpose of the course was to introduce graduate students-primarily well-seasoned public-sector professionals-to innovative technology applications that would fulfill customer requirements, reduce costs and improve the effectiveness of government. Course topics included geographic information systems, videoconferencing, civic networks, groupware, telecommuting, imaging systems, data warehousing, electronic benefits transfer, the Internet and the World Wide Web.

The course also featured a diverse series of speakers from the public sector and industry, who came to our classroom to share their knowledge and experience. They ranged from Ken Phillips, who created the world's first city-sponsored civic network (the Santa Monica, Calif., Public Electronic Network), to the regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who spoke on harnessing IT during natural disasters. A representative from Aurora, Colo., also came to discuss that city's use of GIS and Global Positioning System technology to perform municipal inspections.

Student projects were hands-on. In one, students selected a public-sector organization, assessed its customer service requirements, made an inventory of its existing technology applications and identified IT applications with the greatest potential for responding to customer needs and fulfilling program objectives.

The second project involved students designing a Web site for a local government or state agency that did not currently have one.

As an experiment, I believe the class was successful, and it proved that bridging the gap between the world of the ivory tower and government is possible, although still no small challenge.

Both sectors have much to learn from each other. In the area of IT and public administration, in fact, they have an obligation to learn from each other.

Bruce Kirschner presents courses in public administration and public policy at the University of Colorado. He also is one of the founders of the Boulder Community Network, the first Web-based civic network in the United States. He can be reached at bkirschner@castle.cudenver.edu.

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