Mechling: Government as Partner
Holds Key to E-Commerce Shift
By John Makulowich
The concept of government as a partner in the shift to global electronic commerce is the most vital information technology lesson for public sector organizations headed for the 21st century, a leading expert said last week.
"For the technology-enabled future, the issue is government as a partner in the shift to global electronic commerce," Jerry Mechling, director of strategic computing and telecommunications in the public sector, a research program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, told the E-Gov '98 conference in Washington. "It is clear that the wealth of the world is being created in a different way," said Mechling, whose presentation, "Networked Services: Status and Next Steps," accented four lessons based on a decade of focused research on information technology and best practices in the public sector.
Other key lessons for the public sector: Value will come from innovation, not automation; the IT vision must be shared and leadership committed; and Internet-enabled service, self-service and creative funding should be considered seriously in improving customer satisfaction.
"My comments were really directed to people who own the work process," Mechling told Washington Technology in an interview after his session. "Public sector executives are coming to realize that there are deep changes in the way that work gets done."
In explaining the innovation/automation lesson, for example, Mechling noted that the thousandsfold increase in the capacity of a microprocessor over the last 30 years has been mirrored by the increasing automation of business processes.
However, that no longer is the key variable in adding value.
Now, he said, the issue is innovation, pointing out that among the more successful companies, half their revenues are coming from products and services not even invented five years ago.
Background for Mechling's presentation comes from his 50-page report, "Achieving Superior Customer Service: Reengineering and Information Technology in the Public Sector," which he co-authored with Victoria Sweeney, also of Harvard.
One focus of that report is the challenge of one-stop service, in which hand-offs are reduced and customers are serviced in fewer steps and with less of a burden on the consumer.
"The traditional way the public sector works is with carefully defined roles and procedures. That means lots of specialist jobs and lots of hand-offs, in other words, that's not my job, you need to contact so and so," said Mechling.
"Such hand-offs can be eliminated with innovative programs such as Internet-enabled service, self-service and creative funding," Mechling said. "We must realize that we can add value only when we change the way we work."
Among the positive examples Mechling cited were the state of Massachusetts, which allows car owners to re-register their vehicles over the Internet; and Connecticut, which is in the throes of deciding whether to outsource all of its information processing, retaining only strategic direction, planning and oversight.
Another featured speaker at the conference, who has participated in research workshops held over the last several years at Harvard, was Greg Woods, deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government.
Woods was a team leader for one of the Harvard program's workshops that explored the possibilities for improvement in governments' customer service, including such initiatives as re-engineering and performance measurement.
Showing his linkage to the Harvard group, Woods cited the release in February last year of the Access America plan, Gore's strategic vision to allow each American who desires to reach the government electronically the ability to do so.
"The ideal is one-stop delivery where access means delivering one-stop service to customer segments, whether to the parent planning a move who wants information about public schools or the police officer who needs real-time information on a suspect just pulled off the highway," Woods told Washington Technology.
The model for Woods' work is end-to-end transactions, with a heavy emphasis on electronic commerce and the ability to bridge boundaries and complete transactions across different agencies.Admitting the government has done a good job of drowning citizens in data, whether with information from the Census Bureau or forms from the Internal Revenue Service, Woods noted IT needs to be moved beyond delivering individual transactions, especially with the turnkey services offered in the private sector.
Said Woods: "We can't expect the American people to check their brains at the agency doors with private sector companies like Amazon.com and L.L. Bean delivering the level of service they do."
According to Woods, the government must meet the different interests of different customer groups with single transactions, whether they be college students who need to change their addresses with the Internal Revenue Service or senior citizens who want to get in contact the Social Security Administration.
From his perch as director of the Arizona Government Information Technology Agency, basically state CIO, John Kelly brings a decidedly non-technical, pro-policy approach.
Kelly, who was previously executive director of the Governor's Office of Telecommunications Policy and studied under Mechling while getting his masters at Harvard, directs IT strategy for the executive branch of state government.
GITA's main goals are to enhance the quality of Arizona's information technology services through improved planning, oversight and initiatives and provide IT research and consulting to improve state government's business decisions.
"I'm probably a bit different from the typical CIO in that I come from the policy and political side of the house. My approach is that the key to using technology lies in the heart and mind of the agency director, who must know what the customer wants," says Kelly.
When asked about the direction of IT discussions among his peers, Kelly said many seem to ignore the critical role of the Internet in delivering services.
"In many cases, I find peers who do not fully appreciate how much the Internet is now that delivery infrastructure. They often forget that it is available to them already. I see that in the stovepipe solutions offered. Those who are successful in using IT are generally coming out of the [World Wide] Web environment," said Kelly.