A few months ago IT Business Edge's Mike Vizard wrote it was time for an overdue review of government IT. As evidence that government hasn't kept up with private-sector IT, he pointed to the Securities and Exchange Commission's lack of a database for tracking tips and complaints and its inability to access outside databases, which an inspector general testified contributed to the SEC's failure to discover the $65 billion Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme. He wrote:
Unfortunately, the SEC is probably not alone in terms of government agencies failing to make use of information technology in the best interests of the citizenry. More often than not, the adoption of IT is usually confined to archiving records. The idea that any of those records should actually be analyzed appears to be lost in the bureaucratic maze that passes for good government.
There's no "probably" about it. Earlier this week, IT Business Edge's Lora Bentley wrote about the need for an overhaul of the U.S. patent system, citing a Mercury News story in which the director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office describes a system in which the patent office would print out electronically filed patent applications when they came in, take them to another room and then scan them into the system.
As Lora wrote, the Patent Office is talking to some Silicon Valley companies for ideas on how to improve its IT systems. (And the companies really want to help, considering Silicon Valley is awarded more patents than any other area of the United States.)
Earlier this year, federal agency officials picked the brains of their private-sector counterparts for tech advice. There's no way to know for sure, but it seems likely the advice may have influenced some of the recommendations included in President Obama's 2011 budget proposal, which would increase government IT spending by 1.2 percent. Among the suggestions in the proposal: Close some of the fed's 1,000 data centers, use cloud computing technologies to centralize some IT services for multiple federal agencies and explore the use of Web 2.0 tools to improve communication between federal agencies and their constituents.
Vivek Wadhwa, a senior research associate at Harvard Law School and director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University, has called for a somewhat more radical approach, suggesting government agencies should bring in tech startups and let them rebuild government systems from the ground up instead of working with their usual partners like IBM and HP.
Whether or not government agencies work with startups or more established tech companies, tackling technology problems will likely be easier than addressing cultural issues. (Of course, that's true at private companies as well.) When federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffery Zients testified before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs earlier this year, he said:
This is a management issue more than a technology issue It comes down to having the right people, sharing best practices and ensuring program management processes are robust. Making sure the CIO has a seat at the management table as a senior executive is extremely important.