I enjoyed reading Mark Headd’s blog post, “Don’t Hang Any Pictures,” as he advises those in local governments who are embarking on or managing an open data program. He gives a list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” to help make your project and your tenure run more smoothly and successfully. As the title suggests, don’t get too comfortable in your role or in your position. Uncertainty and resistance should be expected and incorporated into everything you do. I’ll add another one: Incrementalism (think tortoise in the “Tortoise and the Hare.)”
Having spent 13 years in local government with a professional background in public administration, I’ve grown to appreciate that word. It is a way of life in government. You can push or pull as much and as hard as you like, but there will be limits in all directions no matter how determined or how gifted you are. Why do you think they call government an “institution?” It’s the nature of the beast, and thanks to our Founding Fathers, it’s supposed to be that way.
Moving in increments frustrates public administrators, legislators and citizens. Yet, incremental change can also be attributed to 230+ years of a successful democracy (though many will debate the definition of “success” –and so they should).
Some folks adapt and incorporate incrementalism into a successful public sector career. Some folks resist, even revolt, and become candidates for early exit from government. Others still, adopt the bureaucratic characteristic of incrementalism to piece together complacent, yet lack-luster careers in government characterized by lowered expectations and initiative, and a don’t-rock-the-boat mentality.
For elected officials, incrementalism makes for an incredible challenge to take on major initiatives considering they have only four years to accomplish them. I’ve seen community revitalization projects span a 12-16 year period of public policy and participation to complete them. That’s three to four administration terms! And that’s making sure an incumbent’s successor continues the initiative and dedicates needed resources.
And incorporating communication and information technology into a government project, or making it the centerpiece of the effort, such as opening data to the public, has to be the greatest challenge –capping the speed and flexibility of electronic information and communication and applying rigid, even restrictive guidelines to its access and content. It’s easy to understand why CIOs, CDOs and (yes there are still some) MIS professionals tasked with open data initiatives either move on when they see the road they have to travel or happen to be replaced because they aren’t moving fast enough (but at who’s pace…an elected official’s?).
Just ask Ernie Allen, director of NASCIO about the ever-changing makeup of his membership. No other government organization experiences the turnover of its members as much as information officers in senior leadership positions.
There is much to be said for Mark’s comment: “Don’t get comfortable. Recognize that your time in public service is temporary.” While that may be true in some cases, government IT professionals shouldn’t assume that short tenures is inevitable. Government IT professionals can achieve much success in one administration only to be snatched up by another and put to work making the same kind of magic happen to that government’s open data challenge.