Successful IT planning goes well beyond 2000

With all the attention on the year 2000 and its urgent but short-lived—and
overhyped—software repair issues, are agencies thinking enough about the real future,
the one beyond the next 18 months? A number of scholars and writers think agencies need to
think further ahead if they are to effectively serve a changing population.


Consider these possibilities: In the year 2020, the U.S. population will be at least
320 million. Demographers call that scenario rosy. If unforeseen events, such as another
Mexican revolution, push up population trends, we could be a nation of 350 million.


Our complexion will change, too. For example, the Asian-American minority will likely
become half the size of the African-American population. The Hispanic voting block is also
expected to mushroom, and Hispanic voters are expected to become influential in many
states. As many as 50 million Americans will be over 65—approximately twice as many
as now.


Rick Sloan is a political strategist. He wrote a well-received book on strategy during
President Clinton’s 1996 campaign. He forecasts problems that will likely require
federal participation because each of these population groups will require jobs and
services.


For example, even under the rosy scenario, the U.S. population in 2020 will require
more resources than the population of today. It will need 24 billion gallons more of fresh
water each day, 14.5 quadrillion more British thermal units of energy from imports, 25
million more homes and and facilities for 6.4 million more elementary and secondary school
children.


If your job is positioning your agency’s or your program’s information
technology to serve citizens, your strategic thinking has to take trends such as these
into account.


Sloan runs a consulting company in Washington called Challenge America and has taken on
a new project: checking on whether the federal government and its policy elite are paying
any attention to long-term strategic planning.


Sloan’s initial answer: The Defense Department is the paragon of strategic
thinking at the federal level, with its Joint Vision 2010, National Defense Strategy and
Quadrennial Defense Review. It is no surprise that DOD would excel in this regard, because
it has a history of promoting visionaries. My personal nomination for inclusion in the top
echelon of thinkers is Gen. George C. Marshall, perhaps the least appreciated giant of
20th century America.


Fifty-two years ago, Marshall directed the Planning and Policy staff at the State
Department to "look ahead, not to the distant future, but beyond the vision of the
operating officers caught in the smoke and crises of current battle; far enough ahead to
see the emerging form of things to come and what should be done to meet to anticipate
them."


Thankfully, Marshall’s spirit lives on at DOD.


But the civilian side of government presents quite a different picture, without the
historical tradition of strategic planning and the resources DOD has available. The
Government Performance and Results Act was designed to begin to close this gap. But has
it?


According to Sloan, some of the civilian agency reports offer "warm and fuzzy
rhetoric," and substitute that for "rigorous analysis of recent trends" and
"a deep understanding of the current forces in play." In fact, Sloan calls some
of the GPRA reports political pabulum, designed more to justify current plans than to
launch bold futures.


The danger, of course, is that bad or ineffective strategic planning combined with lack
of performance equals budget cuts. When Congress next wields its budget ax with one hand,
it will have GPRA conformance reports in its other hand.


Sloan suggests several steps for agencies. First, go find several strategic thinkers,
and create possible alternative futures for each agency. Second, check out Sloan’s
required reading list, including The Long View by Peter Schwartz.


The government’s IT people have perhaps the most difficult duty, given the rapid
pace of technological change and growing demands for agency services.


Unfortunately, private enterprises riding the technology wave too often have a uniquely
short-term view—of this quarter. For them, the long term amounts to the next three
quarters, or until the next round of public financing.


A very few who are successful enough, such as Hewlett-Packard Co. or Intel Corp., may
have a longer vision based on their current market success.


But government truly has a duty and the vision to shape tomorrow, not simply let it
appear.


Stephen M. Ryan is a partner in the Washington law firm of Brand, Lowell &
Ryan. He has long experience in federal information technology issues. E-mail him at smr@blrlaw.com.

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