EDITOR'S DESK: Provider of last resort

Tom Temin

What is government about, anyhow? I worked for an old-time editor many years ago, and we used to argue this question'me a near-libertarian, he an unrepentant New Dealer. He offered a gritty, but pretty darn accurate, description of government: the provider of last resort.

Nachman Oron stopped by my office recently, courtesy of Frank McDonough, the retired GSA guy who has traveled the world to spread the e-government gospel. Oron was CIO of Israel's Land Administration. He is now strategic consultant to the Israeli government's IT Supreme Committee. The committee's charge resembles that of our Office of Management and Budget. It must wrestle down the disparities and lack of interoperability among the system deployed by Israel's various ministries'what we'd call stovepipes'and set some standards.

To understand Oron's earlier work, you have to understand that with Israel's socialist roots, land there is 93 percent publicly owned. Homeowners, apartment builders or mall developers receive 50-year, renewable leases. All of this must be maintained and managed by systems, in perpetuity. Fifteen years ago, these systems helped officials house an influx of a million Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union. Today they enable the orderly placement in similar housing of people removed from the Gaza strip.

Really, who else but the government could provide such a service?

The awesome images of flooding-related damage in the Gulf Coast in recent weeks were exceeded in my mind by a single fact reported in the Washington Post: 3 million people without drinking water. Slaking thirst on that scale isn't Coca-Cola's job, or Piggly Wiggly's. In such a situation, the provider of last resort can mean life or death.

Unified, up-to-date and scalable systems remain the first priority of the CIO communities so they can be ready for events that only government can handle. Amazing how rescuing a million people from political oppression or three million from a flood puts everything in perspective.

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