Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Problem With Technology in Government

I'm off to a great start in the new year.  Already two posts about technology and government.  This one strikes close to home though.  I started this blog after being re-positioned at my workplace (by now you can guess it's for a government agency).  It was mostly so I could feel connected to technology in a fun way since technology wasn't necessarily part of my daily routine anymore.  I learned a lot in my 5 years as head of a mostly solo operation.  Sure I got help eventually but I'll cover that in the rest of my post.

Here's what you need to REALLY know about technology in government.  Imagine a town where everyone rides horses.  Then you come along with a bicycle and everyone looks at you like you're insane.  Then you show them what your bicycle can do.  They marvel at it, say it's awesome and think more people should use them.  When they say "more people" though, they're not talking about themselves.  They'd actually only be into accepting the bicycle if you were to give them a ride rickshaw-style.  Technology is just like that in a government agency:  First you're crazy for bringing it, then you have to show people why you're not, then you have to convince them to actually use it.  Want an example?  One of the first things I had to convince my superiors of was the need for everyone in the department to have an email address.  Not only that but to make sure it was managed in-house and but also everyone would use the same domain (so instead of or, it would be  I had to fight tooth and nail for this at the time.  You know what one of the reasons was I go so much push back on it?  Well...

1.  Government hates accountability

One of the great things about information technology is the ability to keep track of most anything.  That includes what people say and what people do.  To this day one of my favorite tricks is forwarding things that people have emailed to me as proof that they said something.  Same thing goes with databases.  As long as a database is secure it keeps track of who last messed with something.

This is a great thing.  Managers HATE it.  You find that most people who have been placed in leadership roles through government have no idea what it really means to lead.  Sorry, but being in charge IS NOT the same as leading.  So it's a common mindset of management to have people "do as I say, not as I do".  Problem is, do as I say can change with a whim.  Technology don't play that.  Technology demands that you put what you want people to do in writing and stick to it.  Government likes the idea of accountability.  It likes to tell people they're all about accountability.  But in reality that goes right out the window when it comes to personal accountability.

2.  Managers don't know what they want from IT...and are unapologetic about it.

Watch this short sketch.  Trust me, it's worth it.

Believe it or not, I've sat in meetings just like this and they've all ended exactly as it does in the sketch.

For a long time I thought that I was the crazy person for not getting "it".  Then I finally figured out that these meetings were solely for the purpose of everyone in attendance to claim that they offered "input".  From what I hear this happens in the private sector as well, the difference is that in government people will knowingly waste your time and don't care.  Wasting IT's time in the private sector can cost the company money.  This stems from a larger problem though...

3.  Government has no idea what IT should be doing

I remember my first year managing IT.  I ran through 3 bosses.  One didn't really care what I did, but the 2 others wanted to have serious conversations about what I do.  The problem was they wanted me to be specific as in account for every moment of every day.  It was fun trying to explain to them to that running IT was a sort of controlled madness akin to waiting in a restaurant.  I described what I do as "aligning technology with business needs" for the short version.  Then I'd have to expand and go into taking help desk requests, network management and maintenance, server backups, evaluating technology purchases, installing government issued software, testing bad connections, networking areas of the office that weren't, yadda yadda yadda.  All this was just one location.  We have offices on all three islands PLUS satellite offices.  I spent years begging for additional personnel for my unit but as quickly as I got them they all went on to bigger better things and ultimately I got shafted when our commissioner resigned and we got a new one.  This brings me to my next point...

4.  Politics

If you want to ruin any concept, just inject politics into it.  We set a very terrible precedent of ejecting people who are doing the job for purely political reasons.  Finding science and technology people is already difficult especially in the Virgin Islands.  Let's face it, there are some positions you absolutely NEED to have qualified people in for things to run effectively.  The way things currently work, Dr. The-Governor's-Brother can keep his job even though most of his patients die.  The mentality of how politics work out in the Information Technology realm though is way more sinister.  People get into positions of power and will fill an IT Specialist vacancy with someone "who's really good at using an iPad" or "knows how to use email".  Sure we have a whole division that handles government personnel but with the power of politics that process can be easily sidestepped.  Next thing you know you end up with an IT Manager that has no education or experience with Information Technology...but hey, he knew the right people and he needed a paycheck.

Now that I finished my list I should add a caveat that I'm mainly referring to local government.  That's all my experience entails.  These days I use my extensive IT experience to manage data.  It's simple,boring and at times repetitive.  Would I like to work in an IT shop again?  I think yes.  Would I like to do it again for government?  I think not.