he third annual Government Technology Leadership Institute is a month away. Sponsored by Government Executive, the Council for Excellence in Government and the Brookings Institution, among others, this educational event is designed to give senior agency managers a quick course in what they should know about technology's continuing conquest of government.
It's a truism to say that federal agencies are vitally dependent on technology to keep pace with the demand for better service. But it is equally clear that many of them are far behind the curve. Everyone knows technology horror stories about such major agencies as the IRS and the Health Care Financing Administration, and for every one of these, there are a dozen lesser-known tales of missed opportunities, wasted spending and deepening obsolescence. Congress (and common sense) has ordained that technology programs are now the province of program managers and other agency leaders, not the exclusive preserve of technical specialists. The Institute's program addresses this audience-and the conference promotes a fuller conversation between managers and their technology advisers.
Making this connection is critical to any hopes government may have of gaining public esteem. Government, as Harvard University's Elaine Kamarck has said, is suffering from a performance deficit in comparison to the private sector. Kamarck, who served for years as Vice President Al Gore's senior policy adviser, observes that in the 1950s and 1960s, "when trust in government was high, your experience as an individual interacting with government was likely to be similar to your experience interacting with a bank, a department store, or a private insurance company. You had to go to businesses or government agencies during certain hours. Both used paper-based systems, and so on.
"When America's private sector began to change-to be more customer-friendly and responsive, and better able to tailor responses to you-the government didn't change. Certainly by the end of the '80s, you have a very responsive, adaptive private sector that is always anxious to meet you halfway, and to fulfill your needs for the right price. But the public sector is still pretty much on the one-size-fits-all model: Do things on our schedule, on paper, between 9 and 5. The disparity between what people see in the private sector and in the public sector has contributed to the growing distrust in government."
Here's an example of Kamarck's point. Last month, when agencies began to release their lists of jobs that could be outsourced, as required by the Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act, no central agency put them all together for easy use. The only central source for the data as of mid-October was our own Web site, GovExec.com. Another piece of evidence: Federal executives, Brian Friel reports this month in his story on agencies' use of the Web, are generally not convinced that Web projects are worth more than a modest investment.
Good reasons, it seems to me, to consider attending the Government Technology Leadership Institute Dec. 1-2. How can you find out more about the program? On the Web, of course, at www.govexec.com/gtli. Or, if your browser is broken, you can retreat to the old-tech solution by calling (703) 288-3035.