CIO OUTLOOK

CIO OUTLOOK

Mike Hale

Bring IT shortcomings out into the open

The average government organization, faced with reports of operational problems or performance deficiencies, will batten down the hatches, rev its engines to a high level, and drive hard until the problems or deficiencies are resolved.

This has been the pattern since government managers were first subjected to inspectors general and outside auditors.

Managers like to do such repairs in private, behind the closed doors of the agency, until the work is complete and auditors are invited back for a verification visit. After all, the reputation of the organization is at stake. Repairs become the top priority. Workers bring files and documentation up-to-date, catch up on backlogs and try to reduce errors to manageable levels.

Such a reaction ought to reflect the pride of the organization, its can-do attitude. No one wants to be part of an organization that is falling behind the pack, particularly in a public setting.

This is good when deficiencies are workload-related. But what if they result from a lack of skills, knowledge or abilities? Then, a batten-down-the-hatches, no-visitors-allowed approach can work to the disadvantage of an agency.

Over the past two years, the year 2000 issue has exposed nearly every agency to external scrutiny, particularly in systems testing. Procedures that many thought were OK were found wanting when viewed in the light of best practices and overall risk. Disturbing at first, these revelations eventually had a positive educational impact on agencies, at least the smart agencies.

In the middle of one such external program review, a consultant hired by Georgia pointed out that in his company, external scrutiny was an expected part of operations.

He claimed to welcome external reviews and acknowledged the ever-present possibility that his group had overlooked something. This remark struck a chord that was unfamiliar in my public-sector experience. Employees in government agencies normally don't think this way.

The staff members of most government information technology organizations have a mixed bag of competencies. And, with technology moving so rapidly, few organizations can afford to operate behind closed doors, particularly if improving operational proficiency is the goal.

A neighboring agency may have mastered the one technique needed most for your success. A peer review of a critical project or operation may save you hours of work.

Every government chief information officer or IT director in the country is struggling with the challenge of hiring and retaining experienced workers.

A more open environment of interagency sharing and peer review is one way to deal with the personnel problem. Conversely, organizations lacking the freedom'or the will'to reach out and subject themselves to such examination are putting themselves at significant risk in these times of accelerated technological change.

Don't overlook answers that might lie in user groups, focus groups or just greater interagency cooperation. Managers must recognize the opportunity for third-party review and encourage it.

Mike Hale is chief information officer of Georgia. He previously was executive director of Florida's Information Resource Commission and is a retired Army colonel. His e-mail address is mhale@itpc.state.ga.us.

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