Rubel: Pulling IT together

Last summer, House Appropriations Committee members systematically went after funding for e-government programs in a number of agencies. Federal Computer Week quoted a committee spokesperson as saying, " 'If we don't appropriate funds for something, you can't go around that [and ask] agencies to pony up. We've never been convinced it's a good idea. We've always viewed it as

duplicative and unnecessary.' "

To say that what we have here is a failure to communicate seems an understatement. "Duplicative and unnecessary"? Although plenty of legitimate questions could be asked and judgments could be passed about the Bush administration's e-government initiatives, this kind of language points to a larger problem — and it is not congressional lawmakers' problem, nor is it the Bush administration's problem. It is everyone's problem — and it is a big one.

The terms and language that officials choose for the technology they use in business processes for information have been evolutionary and remain somewhat arbitrary. "E-gov" is a good example. What does it mean? The term has developed as shorthand script for electronic government. But is there a common understanding of what e-government is?

A few years ago, I heard a governor say to a gathering of governors, "We should congratulate ourselves. We have implemented e-gov. For most of us, that means we have automated state processes to the point that we can now do bad things faster than ever before."

Clearly, his perception was that there wasn't a good understanding of the term, but he was also contending that e-government had been adopted to apply to a broad range of activities that weren't necessarily improving the way government conducts business. For the most part, that was a solid observation, and it might be the perception that policy-makers hold today.

The failure to clearly articulate expectations for information technology has many origins, and officials continue to struggle with IT's evolutionary nature. Within any given organization, project or program, a unique set of terms and processes have traditionally been used to identify, measure and communicate outcomes.

As the convergence of business and technology continues, these will evolve, but without adequate focus, they will continue to create confusion. Using effective business tools such as enterprise architectures and portfolio management, officials can begin to map IT processes to business and policy outcomes.

That will enable them to establish relationships to outcomes across each component activity and stakeholder within organizations that are responsible for achieving them. As this understanding unfolds, common language can evolve and communications will improve.

Government officials continue to push the enterprise view, but they repeatedly fail to communicate in enterprise language. The challenge for today's government chief information officers and IT managers is to understand their relationship to every component within the enterprise and drive communication based on this understanding.

This is not easy, but it will ultimately improve expectations on all fronts, create true performance measurability and move government toward sound investment strategies that will deliver the outcomes policy-makers seek.

Rubel is vice president of government strategies for META Group, a consulting firm based in Stamford, Conn.

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