Mechling schools current, future leaders on IT role in government

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.— Jerry Mechling, director of Harvard University's Strategic Computing and Telecommunications in the Public Sector program, recently experienced firsthand how information technology can help individuals deal with government agencies.

He was driving to a conference in upstate New York when he was pulled over for speeding. He wanted to protest the ticket but did not know the local rules for doing so. So he turned to the World Wide Web and found the names of a couple of lawyers. "In about 15 minutes, I was talking to three or four people" who offered advice, he said.

Mechling said IT allowed this unknown information— how to challenge the ticket in an unfamiliar town— to present itself. "What was invisible became visible,'' he said.

Mechling has spent more than a decade studying, teaching and preaching about how governments can use IT to deliver services to the public more effectively. He has organized nearly three dozen conferences and has spoken at more than four dozen others.

Computing is becoming integral to governing, but most public-sector managers considered it to be "plumbing'' at the time Mechling talked Harvard's Kennedy School of Government into launching his program in the late 1980s.

"What I observed was that the change agenda is going to be increasingly wrapped up in what technology can do,'' he said in his third-floor office two blocks from Harvard Yard. "There was not a huge community of people that thought that was an obvious thing.''

The role IT might play in government became obvious to Mechling early in his career. He graduated from Harvard in 1965 with a degree in physics and mathematics, "not thinking anything about computers,'' he said. He then pursued a master's degree and, later, a doctorate in public affairs from Princeton University. "I thought potholes were more important than whether toothpaste was minty,'' he said of his decision to focus on the public sector.

In between his studies, he landed a job as an aide to New York Mayor John Lindsay and then became assistant administrator of the city's Environmental Protection Administration. At the time, a government reform movement based on planning, programming and budgeting— similar to today's performance measurement approach— relied on computer-generated data.

In 1977, when Mechling became budget director for the city of Boston under Mayor Kevin White, he learned that computers could be used to help agencies improve the services they delivered. He recounted that White "was much less interested in managerial kinds of things'' than Lindsay was. But he said White was aware that computer analysis, through such devices as "score cards'' of city services, could point to areas where voters were dissatisfied with government performance.

Mechling gleaned from his work that IT "can make an enormous difference'' in how agencies treat the public. He said government officials who use technology to communicate with people are more likely to gain the public's trust. Furthermore, he said, the information revolution is redefining how people think about the efficiency of government and their ideas of what it means for government to treat them equitably.

In particular, he noted that individuals are redefining how they view the communities to which they belong, from the physical to the virtual, identifying with their jobs, ethnic groups or hobbies more than the place in which they live. That, in turn, is changing how public problems get resolved, he said.

But he added that not enough political leaders realize it yet. Mechling has argued in several studies that government will begin to use IT effectively only when elected officials and senior-level managers are willing to take the political risks necessary to break down barriers that prevent organizations from sharing information and systems across agency and geographic lines.

"The technology won't work right the first time,'' he said. "The difference between success and failure is political leadership."

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