No vacation from e-gov

August isn't what it used to be. In years past, it was a quiet time when

everyone in Washington, D.C., was either on vacation or enjoying the empty

restaurants, Metro trains and roads. Along with so many other comfortable

traditions, the Internet has destroyed this, too. Now August is the time

to get that next application release completed, tested and ready by Labor

Day!

What has happened? Simply stated, the Internet makes every project a

short-term effort. Web-based applications are about speed: quickly delivering

services to broad sets of users, learning from their feedback and making

the experience better over time.

How different that is from mainframe and client/server applications.

The "old" approach required everything to be almost perfect before installing

the application and training users, which could cost millions. Employees'

time was secondary to ensuring that the expensive computing infrastructure

was used as efficiently as possible.

The new world of the Internet has turned that approach on its head.

Now the application is designed to make users' time as efficient and productive

as possible. The new approach is largely about self-service. Self-service

means the system has to be so straightforward that no training is necessary.

Employees are no longer standing between the customer and the organization.

Office hours? You've got to be kidding!

Not all applications lend themselves to the World Wide Web — not yet,

anyway. However, the percentage of applications that are Web-enabled is

growing rapidly. And the modularity of such applications is going to dramatically

impact how we budget for and manage IT projects.

The FirstGov portal provides a great example. The initial functions

to be implemented in September will be modest compared with what should

be available on the portal in a year's time. Furthermore, the full range

of functions that will be available in a year cannot yet be known. Through

feedback, users will help determine what should be included and in what

order.

This makes budgeting difficult. If we don't know what will be included,

how can we know what it will cost? The Internet teaches us that there are

many paths to success. If we aren't sure that the next step will add value,

then we should postpone spending the money to build it. This logic can quickly

become circular, but the basic premise is to start small, gather feedback

and rapidly move to the next phase. Anticipation and course correction are

two critical factors for success in this new environment.

Those of us who will take some time off this month should reflect on

how profoundly this philosophical shift is impacting the world around us.

As agents of change, we need to plan for how we will incorporate this new

approach into our efforts to deliver high-quality government services to

the citizens — when they want it, where they want it and how they want it.

That is, after all, the essence of e-government.

—Piatt is the chief information officer at the General Services Administration.

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