Of fish and funding
Call it the Dead Fish Theory of government fiscal responsibility. Simply
put, government is committed to do everything in its power to secure funding
for its core services, but the core services might not be as broad as you
I concocted this theory earlier this fall when a neighbor discovered
that the stream that runs behind our townhouses had taken on a reddish hue
and an alarming number of fish had died. When my neighbor called a local
agency to report it, they tested the water and said it was probably nothing
to worry about, but they could not afford to test the fish.
This situation isn't uncommon. Government agencies, particularly at
the city and county levels, frequently find themselves cutting back their
services everywhere they can to ensure they have enough money for the absolute
So when agency officials look to fund a significant information technology
project, they better be prepared to justify it, either to their budget office
or even to the legislature. The pressure only increases as projects get
more ambitious or overall spending increases, even in states or cities with
A legislature may not question money budgeted for upgrading an agency's
local-area network. But they will take notice when a city awards a multimillion-dollar
contract to manage its online transaction systems and services. It sounds
like a great idea, but what's the business case for such a system?
This month's cover story explains how one state, Iowa, is trying to
apply good business sense to its IT spending by evaluating each proposed
project for its potential return on investment. In short, the state attempts
to weigh a project's cost against its impact on government operations and
on the public.
The ROI initiative is not just a political exercise, Iowa officials
say, but a legitimate effort to make rational choices about which projects
to fund and which to cut. Such a businesslike approach has the potential
to save IT projects that otherwise might be cut. Consider the Dead Fish
Theory. A government faced with a tight budget inevitably must make choices
about any number of programs that have legitimate value.
Decision-makers in the executive and legislative branches often look
hard at technology budgets because they do not understand the value of those
projects. It's easy to see that staffing up the Department of Motor Vehicles
might improve service or that a new snow removal contract will allow residents
to get to work faster. But what's the value of a wide-area network linking
government buildings? What's the value of revamping a Web site?
In fact, technology can play a vital role in government operations and
services. A number of states now allow residents to renew registrations
or even drivers licenses online, which in time could dramatically reduce
the number of people standing in line. But agencies must be able to demonstrate
that value, or they run the risk that someone somewhere along the line will
decide to cut bait.