Don't give up on the Net

I recently had a strange experience while teaching an introductory course on public management for our public policy students at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. One of the cases I had introduced a year earlier discussed CityCall, a one-stop customer service call center run by Louisville, Ky., that receives citizen complaints and answers questions about any aspect of city government.

CityCall is an innovative, customer-focused operation. But it's certainly not perfect, and so I asked my students: "What should Louisville do to improve the management of CityCall?"

When I first taught the case in April 2000 — just weeks before the Nasdaq bubble first burst — the students talked for 45 minutes almost exclusively about the Internet. Managing this operation better meant offloading as much of it as possible online, developing frequently asked questions and reducing the need for telephone customer service representatives. A year later, I taught the same case and asked the same question. The contrast couldn't have been more striking. The students did not mention the Internet on their own even once! At one point, I asked whether CityCall ought to give people who telephoned and were put on hold the option of e-mailing their inquiry. Just as many students thought that was a bad idea as a good idea.

What a difference a year makes.

The collapse of New Economy euphoria has been widely noted as a stock market and a job market phenomenon. But, as the students' shift suggests, it is also a mind-share phenomenon. The psychological obsession with the Net seems gone.

This change has several implications for government information technology. One is good, at least in the short term, in that it may make government a relatively more attractive job choice for young people.

If the world is telling Kennedy School students that dot-com startups are the coolest places in the world, that will affect them. We had real problems attracting last year's graduating class to government service. My impression now, although lacking final numbers, is that the mood among our current students has shifted more favorably toward government.

The other implication is less good. The reduction in Internet excitement is likely to reduce pressures for a transition to e-government. Especially in government, a sense of momentum is important to drive change efforts forward, and this is particularly important in cross-agency e-government applications. I worry that, just as the momentum for e-government has gotten started, the loss of enthusiasm for the New Economy will nip change efforts in the bud. A year ago, the New Economy was wildly overhyped. But we've now moved from irrational euphoria to irrational gloom. The IT community needs to spread the message that the Net is not dead.

Kelman, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997, is Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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