Information Technology and Government: The Need for New Leadership

Jerry Mechling
Harvard University

Beginning with their introduction into organizational life in the 1950s, information technologies (IT) were thought to raise delegation issues, not leadership issues. Public sector and other leaders were encouraged to delegate IT to "the experts"--to specialized IT staff and vendors. Computing and telecommunications weren't seen as requiring much in the way of political problem solving or leadership. Nor were they seen as offering solutions to important political or policy problems. As a result, senior general managers were minimally involved in technology matters, and technology experts were minimally involved in organizational strategy or operations.

We've come a long way since the 1950s. The technologies are different and the applications are different. But to what extent is "management by delegation" still the rule for IT issues, and with what impacts on government and the larger society? What, if anything, could and should be done?

This study addresses these questions, focusing heavily on the views of practitioners directly involved in governmental IT projects. This paper will define the study's subject and approach, then summarize its primary findings and recommendations.

IT leadership and government performance

For the purposes of this study, we define leadership simply as behaviors which "go in front" so as to influence (and improve) the performance of others (the followers). This sense of leadership is widely shared among practitioners. And in case after case there is copious evidence suggesting leadership's strong impact: from Napoleon's armies, to Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers, to first-graders learning to read, groups that are otherwise equivalent produce markedly different results due to good or bad leadership.

Figure 1 illustrates the primary concepts and relationships explored in this study. In general, we sought to understand how IT leadership, in combination with environmental and other factors, influences government performance. In particular, we evaluated a range of commonly pursued options for improving governmental IT leadership. These options focused heavily but not exclusively on: (1) actors: getting the right people and skills involved in the IT leadership process (e.g., changing the role of IT managers, general managers, oversight agency personnel), and (2) activities: getting the IT leadership process to focus on the right mix of things to do (e.g., changing the emphasis on communication, education, planning, funding).

Figure 1. IT Leadership and Government Performance: Concepts and Relationships

As Figure 1 suggests, many factors in addition to leadership actors and activities influence performance. Three were of particular importance:

  1. The type or level of group involved. Leadership for individual IT projects is different than for entire organizations (which often deal with many projects simultaneously) or for the larger society (and its vast array of organizational and other relationships). In this study we focused primarily on individual projects, but also sought lessons for IT leadership on an organization-wide and society-wide basis.
  2. Trends in information technologies and their applications. IT leadership must adjust to rapid technological changes and the doubling of the cost-effectiveness of computers every 18 months. As computers become dramatically cheaper, they are more pervasively used, and the easy applications have already been addressed. The new applications are different: Information technologies have thus become more than a tool for incremental change; in many situations they can now be used for quantum-leap, revolutionary change. This poses fundamentally new challenges for leadership.
  3. The nature of the public sector environment. Private organizations have responded rather rapidly and aggressively to changes in IT, primarily by giving front-line and senior general managers a stronger role in IT leadership. But before governments rush to emulate private sector IT leadership practices, we should consider the differences between the sectors. To begin, public agencies deal with spill-overs, or the need to intervene in market transactions to protect the rights and welfare of third parties (as when enforcing regulations and redistributing income); this makes determining the value of a given activity in the public sector inherently more complex, subjective, and controversial than it would be in the private sector. In addition, public agencies have considerable monopoly power (e.g., military forces, tax agencies, public schools). Concerned about potential abuses of this power, we have typically forced public agencies to operate under extensive checks and balances and requirements for due process. In general, we have built our public agencies for caution, not speed: we have been willing to sacrifice efficiency in order to retain democratic controls. This trade-off may also make a difference when it comes to designing IT leadership strategies for the public sector.

A rational strategy depends on estimates of the impacts of the options considered. But estimating the impacts of leadership initiatives is inevitably uncertain, given the complex and ambiguous nature of factors and interrelationships involved. To help with such estimates, we began with the views of practitioners directly involved with governmental IT issues and activities. The summary conclusions of the study which follow are based on surveys of practitioner views as interpreted in the context of recent literature and field work exploring computing applications in public sector contexts.

Summary findings and recommendations

In this study, we have found that "management by delegation" is still widely followed for IT initiatives in government today. Far too often, senior general managers remain minimally involved in technology matters, and technology experts remain minimally involved in organizational strategy or operations.

Our key findings and recommendations are as follows:


Poor IT leadership is a significant drag on governmental performance. Not only is governmental performance low relative to public expectations, it is low relative to the more informed expectations of long-time governmental practitioners. While frustration with government is often due to problems which can't be solved by better technology use alone (e.g., problems in adjusting to the flattening out of the rapid economic growth following World War II), there is no denying that leading private corporations have used IT to become more efficient, and that governments have fallen far behind the curve of what is possible. A key contributor to this falling behind is a continuing lack of innovation in government, and a lack of leadership for IT-related innovation.

Recommendation 1

As a necessary condition for success in the Information Age, government general managers and political leaders should become more involved in IT issues. As IT grows hugely more cost-effective, it is used not only for incremental changes (automating pre-existing work flows, such as payroll), but for quantum changes (inventing fundamentally new work flows, such as services delivered over the Internet). These require organizational changes that cannot be implemented by technical experts alone, but instead require strong partnerships between IT managers and general managers.

Recommendation 2

The substantial knowledge gap which now exists between general managers and IT managers must be reduced. At present, general managers (including political leaders) are perceived--even by themselves--as not having adequate knowledge of IT issues. For their part, IT managers are perceived as not having adequate knowledge of strategic and operational issues. To create the partnerships required for effective IT leadership, this gap needs to be reduced and made bridgeable, both in reality and in perception. Chief information officers (CIOs) must play a key role here in improving the communications between the IT and senior management communities. CIOs are well-positioned to be "interpreters" between the two communities. For general managers and political leaders, it will be important to get more involved in education, planning, and the communication of IT lessons and stories. While such involvement will not come easily, given the intense pressures on government leaders, it is visibly growing--via the example of people such as Vice President Gore, House Speaker Gingrich and Governor Leavitt of Utah--and may soon reach a critical mass which will make further involvement much easier.

Recommendation 3

At the level of individual projects, IT leaders need to understand and overcome obstacles of conflict and confusion. While projects with the least conflict and confusion can be implemented via standard project management techniques, others will require additional (nonstandard) efforts to clarify the vision, to negotiate with opponents, and/or to prepare thoroughly in advance so that implementation--once initiated--can be carried out quickly and decisively. IT leadership too often focuses on technical and economic feasibility, ignoring the "soft" issues of behavioral feasibility.

Recommendation 4

At the level of entire organizations, IT leaders need to invest in the right amount of IT-related learning. In stable environments, such investments may be limited largely to the work of a specialized IT planning staff. In more rapidly changing environments, however, such as most governmental environments today, markedly more resources are required to cope with change: for example, investments are needed in individual and team education, in benchmarking, and in experiments with networked work flows and organizations. Government tends to underinvest in learning, avoiding "mistakes" in the near term only to fall farther and farther behind the curve of what is possible and expected.

Recommendation 5

Throughout government, IT leaders need to focus on selective high-leverage targets and activities. While transformational IT initiatives will be inherently difficult, seven substantive and procedural targets promise especially high value and low risk. CEOs, CIOs, and general managers, including political leaders, should get much more heavily involved in the following kinds of initiatives:

  1. Information highway investments. The networks of the future are in their infancy, and government needs to partner with the private sector in balancing needs for continuing innovation against sometimes conflicting needs for standardization and public access. The Internet is a powerful change agent whose capacities should be fully utilized.
  2. Network delivered services and customer service. Government services--to the maximum extent possible--should be delivered via telecommunications networks on a one-stop, 24-hour, self-service basis. This would reduce costs and improve service. Using networks to offer "virtual" one-stop service is a promising early step to service integration across agency boundaries.
  3. Electronic commerce and procurement (including outsourcing). The private sector is building electronic links with suppliers and customers to reduce costs and outsource nonessential functions. Governments should support and participate in these efforts, not only to improve government efficiency, but to build infrastructure for global electronic commerce.
  4. Nontraditional funding (i.e., sources other than taxes). For IT funding, several governments are turning to user charges, bonds, and public-private partnerships. More governments should explore these possibilities.
  5. Communications, including getting the word out to diverse stakeholders. The essence of IT success will involve mobilizing stakeholders who are latent supporters but largely uninvolved; this will require more aggressive and skilled communications both internally and externally.
  6. Planning/visioning, including the participation required for generating shared commitments. The commitments to be generated must focus on utilizing technology to solve important societal problems, not merely to tinker with the mechanics of existing programs.
  7. Education, reaching both the IT and general management communities. While these communities have not worked well together to date, strong partnerships must be built if the opportunities raised by information technologies are to be exploited. A key resource for success--as in other fields depending on innovation--will be education.

Recommendation 6

We need research to better understand the issues of governance within geographically dispersed electronic communities. Governments both define and protect public value, resolving conflicts between individuals and groups in the communities being governed. But the nature of what we mean by "community" is changing with the growth of modern transportation and information technologies, and becoming much less dependent on geography. This leads to more efficient production and markets, and makes it easier for people to associate with those of similar interests. But it also makes traditional governance more difficult, as people become less engaged and committed to their local community and its shared values. Networking thus raises problems as well as opportunities for governing production processes, as socialization and control must be based less on direct observation, and also less on readily measurable physical outputs. Networking also raises problems and opportunities in governing other kinds of communities. What do we mean by privacy, freedom of speech, intellectual property rights, equitable access, national sovereignty, place of business, and other foundations of governance in heavily computerized and networked societies? These and other issues will clearly require exploration, research, and, ultimately, good leadership, if we are to make wise choices in shaping the networked world we are rapidly bringing into being.

The above guidelines suggest a challenging IT leadership agenda for governments. It is not, in general, an agenda of easy things to do, or we would have done them already. We believe, however, that the fruits of this agenda will be extremely worthwhile for those with the wisdom and will to make it their own.

As we approach the 21st century, the world is being reconstructed. President John F. Kennedy once said:

It is time for a new generation of leadership to cope with new problems and new opportunities. For there is a new world to be won.

In Kennedy's time, leadership was needed for space exploration, civil rights, and the environment. While these are obviously still important, today's new problems and opportunities--even for space, civil rights, and the environment--relate heavily to changes in information technology and the globalization of economic activity. To address these problems, we need new leadership, including far stronger partnerships between IT managers, program managers, and political leaders.

There is a new world to be won, and wise and committed IT leadership in government will be needed to win it.