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Emily Johnson
Emily Johnson
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Government IT: Time to Catch Up

What's the most pressing issue in government IT? Well, the resistance to it.

Government’s fear to implement new technology may not come as a surprise to many, after all, it’s an institution that’s known for red tape and moving slowly. And while governments may have a hand in aiding and advancing Silicon Valley, all that rubbing shoulders with tech CEOs hasn’t led to tech innovation rubbing off on government. 

“The most urgent [issue in government IT] is that governance and government haven’t yet caught up to the digital age,” says Jonathan Feldman, longtime InformationWeek contributor and Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, NC. “A lot of governments are being disrupted and they don’t even know it,” warns Feldman, who is also chair of the government IT track at Interop ITX this spring. 

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

As to why government IT is behind the times? Feldman points one finger of blame at the environment of transparency in government and the fear that a mistake will lead to public criticism. [He adds a caveat that large, high profile enterprises, like a Starbucks, also have to navigate a highly transparent work environment.] 

“In private enterprise, when something bad happens in accounting or someone makes a big mistake, maybe someone gets fired, but nobody’s face is splashed across the front page of the paper,” says Feldman. There’s also a fear that a mistake will be career limiting or ending, says Feldman. 

“[Actions] are only career limiting for you if you refuse to share data and you refuse to measure and manage, and when you measure and manage, you refuse to take positive actions to move the needle,” says Feldman. “Instead of resisting the change and getting swamped, [government IT needs] to be able to sort of swing with the riptide instead of being drowned,” says Feldman. 

The fishbowl effect isn’t the only issue IT pros in government are thinking about. Feldman says a big focus for him is talent, and the lack of talent to build creative solutions, an issue that he saw arise after IT made the shift from custom developments to commercial software. 

After the industry shifted from custom developments to commercial software, Feldman says “a lot of IT shops, especially in government, killed their custom development program,” and let go of the employees who were creating custom projects, and they brought on new folks to manage and maintain the software. 

Jonathan Feldman
Jonathan Feldman

One session in the government IT track at Interop ITX will cover this issue, says Feldman. “I think Jeff [Stovall, CIO for the City of Charlotte, NC] is going to argue that in fact, to get value, if you use commercial, off-the-shelf software, you are doing exactly what all of your peers are doing, but if you want to move the ball forward and do something new, those are times that you’re going to create [custom projects]. I don’t think he’s going to argue that we need to go back to the old days, but that the pendulum has swung too far to the commercial, off-the-shelf world and we need to find a balance,” says Feldman. 

A more recent issue that government IT leaders are trying to address, is that they, not unlike the rest of us, don’t know who to trust on social media anymore. 

“In the age of flash mobs on Twitter and Facebook, elected officials are hearing from constituents more than they ever, ever did,” says Feldman, and those voices aren’t just coming from humans. “Now, not only are elected officials swamped by the amount of input they get, but they’re also being hit by fake trolls,” he says. 

Despite the uncertainty and the shark-infested waters that government IT pros navigate every day, Feldman says IT professionals in government are in a good place to bring about positive change and innovation in government tech. 

“Good IT leaders understand government and the mission of government. So they are uniquely positioned to help the staff and the ‘electeds’ figure this thing out, and instead of being disrupted [by tech], to transform with it,” says Feldman. 

So, in terms of getting things right, government IT has a lot of culture work to do, but there are rays of hope, especially when it comes to cities, says Feldman. Feldman cites San Jose as an example, which is working with Facebook to bring Wi-Fi to the downtown area

“Other cities, like Asheville, are working on digital inclusion, says Feldman. “We’re trying to reframe government services so that everyone has equity of access. One of the focuses is on race, but one of our other focuses, for example, is accessibility. So, if you look at our dashboards, they’re done in color-blind friendly colors.” 

To learn more about the state of IT in government, you can attend any of the sessions in Feldman’s track at Interop ITX, April 30 - May 4, 2018, this year.    

“I really hope that [people who attend my track]...will look at their mission differently,” says Feldman. “They’ll learn something [and] they’ll connect with people doing some of the best work in performance management and IT leadership.”

Emily Johnson is the digital content editor for InformationWeek. Prior to this role, Emily worked within UBM America's technology group as an associate editor on their content marketing team. Emily started her career at UBM in 2011 and spent four and a half years in content ... View Full Bio
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