Think before you slam government IT folks

Everyone loves to hate governments and everyone likes to bad-mouth public servants. It’s just like everyone thinks that the government has a bottomless pocketful of money. In my experience, public servants do a marvellous job of keeping the infrastructure going, sometimes when the funds just aren’t there.

In the private sector, we look at government IT projects with a mixture of awe and envy. If only we had the budget for that project, whatever it is. The reality is that the government doesn’t have any money. It all belongs to the taxpayers. When you have vociferous lobby groups all wanting a slice of the pie, the allocation of funds is based more on the present government being re-elected and less on the long-term impact of government business. As a result, government projects tend to be relatively short term, and come under immense scrutiny. They have to outline all costs – including the cost of administration, documentation, training, supplies and who knows what other details the private sector takes for granted. Projects are examined from the business level by other public servants, at the political level by cabinet ministers, multi-party committees and politicians who may or may not have any genuine interest.

Then there’s the public. Lobby groups, unions, consulting firms, big businesses, little businesses and various investigative journalists all want to make sure that the project is legitimate and in their interests. It’s the latter phrase that causes the difficulty because you can’t make people happy with a project that doesn’t fit their expectations of how “government” money should be spent. And chances are it all has to be expensed in the current fiscal year. Everyone forgets about the amortization over the life of the project, or the benefits that may start to accrue in year one.

At a recent Information Builders Inc. user group conference, I had an opportunity to see some very innovative and relatively inexpensive examples of governments from both sides of the border accessing their data, measuring performance and – most importantly – providing service to the public.

One little-known rural development program has the task of providing money for infrastructure improvements in rural areas. They provide money for schools, hospitals, fire prevention, clean water, sewage and virtually any other basic amenity that city dwellers take for granted. To do this, they have to track financing in the billions and projects numbering in the tens of thousands. Like a lot of other government departments, they have data in various formats from old systems, newer systems and systems they’d like to implement. They need to track information from across the country and they need to make information available to the public.

Rather than start over with yet another new system, they decided to look at the data, not the systems. They created ways of collecting the data, measuring performance and reporting the results using the Internet and their own intranet. Data entry is through the intranet and project numbers are up to date and reported on the Web for the benefit of the public. This project was an example of very creative use of tools that are available to anyone and the cost was low.

Another example from this side of the border was a Web-enablement into the BC government financial system for tracking budgets and financial figures for a particular ministry. It was done internally in the developer’s spare time (at home with no overtime). This was another example of creativity and common sense in dealing with information rather than “the system.”

The application that drew the most attention was by the City of New York Health Department. Inspectors examine every restaurant in New York and write up the results, which are now available on the Internet and make fascinating reading. If your Palm Pilot is Web-capable, you can stand outside the restaurant and check its last inspection. Then you can decide if the high-class ambience makes up for the kitchen observations. I checked out a couple of restaurants that I know by reputation. I don’t think I’ll eat there if I ever get to New York.

The next time you want to slam the government in general and government IT folks in particular, just ask yourself, “Could I handle the challenges of public and political scrutiny, the limited budget and the creativity – for the same wage?”

Horner is a partner at

Sierra Systems Group Inc.

He can be reached at