IT and politics a bad mix

Seeking to play off the early successes of the digital economy and digital government, presidential hopeful George W. Bush is piecing together his own electronic government initiative. That could be good news for the federal information technology community — if political ideology is kept out of the plan. But that may be wishful thinking.

Details of Bush's plan have yet to be unveiled, but the initial indications are that he will use IT to deliver government services via the Internet, reduce the size of government and outsource more work to the private sector. Bush would also borrow IT strategies from the private sector to improve government operations.

The plan sounds similar to what Vice President Al Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government has been trying to do for the past seven years. Experts can argue about the success that NPR has had, but most would have to agree that the effort has saved money and improved government services.

If Bush's government technology plan would do the same, it would be a welcome policy, giving continuity to an already successful effort. But if Bush views technology as a way to meet an ideological goal to reduce the size of big, bad government, his plan would quickly backfire.

Bush would do well to keep in mind the struggles Gore had with the government unions when he introduced his NPR plan. He should also remember the hard political lessons congressional Republicans learned in the mid-1990s, when they allowed the government to shut down as they fought President Clinton over budget cuts aimed at shrinking government.

IT can certainly bring about savings, reduce workloads and cut the size of government. Those benefits have happened. But IT must be applied in a businesslike manner to accomplish businesslike goals, not as a club to meet a political agenda. If he does that, Bush runs the risk of paying lip service to what IT can do, preventing government and Americans from fully realizing the advantages IT offers.

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