Let’s face it. Regardless of political leaning, not many people hear the phrase, “Government run,” and expect something good to follow. Some of that reputation is based on some very funny comedians. Some is based on personal experience. Most of that reputation, however, is well earned. Trying to navigate through a city, county, state or federal government IT infrastructure is particularly challenging. While some of the blame can certainly be leveled at the ‘B’ word (bureaucracy), most of the struggle stems from how it came about. First, a little history lesson.
The Early Years
One Upon a Time, computers were named ENIAC and took up the same volume as a small warehouse. Programs were entered either using punch cards or reel-to-reel tape. There was no need for special security because A) these computers cost almost a half million dollars B) only a handful of people were allowed in the room to use them and C) they certainly didn’t communicate with the outside world. Maintenance was equally expensive and there weren’t any such things as upgrades. The great Y2K scare was a byproduct of a lack of upgrades. Programmers tried to save memory by chopping the ‘19’ from year fields. To most state and local governments, such a computer was a pipe dream. But, the 50’s gave way to the 60’s, which gave way to the 70’s. Computers got a little smaller (still the size of a double office) but could now be programmed via dumb terminal. Maintenance and upgrades were finally available, but the cost was exorbitant. Finally, some states could afford such computers, but had very little use for them. That all changed with…
Then Came the 80s
Who would have predicted the decade that started with bell bottom jeans, Intellivision and Charlie’s Angles having telephones in their cars would end with cell phones and precursors to the internet? Suddenly, typewriters were giving way to personal computers. Dozens of companies attempted to get into people’s homes with computing power, but the early favorites were Apple, Commodore and IBM. Anyone remember having PCjr? Accounting departments all over the world changed in 1983 with the advent of Lotus 1-2-3, the first commercial spreadsheet program (I know, I know… technically, Visicalc came first, but it didn’t have nearly the impact of Lotus 1-2-3 and was quickly overtaken). Almost overnight, state and federal employees were wanting word processing programs, spreadsheet programs and myriad other things that only super-geeks in the back room could do. Government budgets struggled to put these marvelous new gadgets on as many desks as possible, but they were just considered appliances. Rudimentary networks would allow them to talk to each other and share files. Things like bulletin boards would allow computers to talk across phone lines. But, all the scary stuff was still happening within the safe confines of online services. We’re looking at you, GEnie, CompuServe and the granddaddy of them all; America Online. That was all about to change.
From Light Speed to Ludicrous Speed
You get special Geek Cred if you know from where ‘Ludicrous Speed’ comes. The 80’s kicked things into high gear, technologically. The 90’s sent everything into a whole different reality. The internet became publicly available in 1991. Just like the prospectors of the Old West, there was a mad dash to leave the proprietary online services and go to the world wide web directly. Cell phones were becoming commonplace and, with the introduction of T-9 texting, you could do more than just call someone with them. Online services would suffer and die or, at best, completely reinvent themselves as something else. Dial-up connections to the internet were giving way to this thing called ‘broadband.’ Once again, local and state governments, not having the advantage of making more money, struggled with affording to acquire this new technology, let alone govern and strategically implement it. Security risks were beginning to pop up. This nasty word, “virus,” suddenly meant more than being down an employee for a day or two. Now, it meant something that could take down your files, computer or network. As new government projects were approved, also was new equipment approved. With each new fiscal year, with each new project, with each new round of technology approval… came new technology that wasn’t necessarily compatible with the technology purchased last year. The introduction of widely used email addresses now meant people and systems were connected on a level that was difficult to track. Then, the big one dropped…
The new millennium brought the not-end-of-the-world-Y2K as well as smartphones, digital media and wireless internet access. People wanted to stay connected, wanted their emails on their phones and wanted remote access to their work computers (hey, everyone ELSE is doing it). Once again, local and state governments, bogged down by security sensitivity (without a strategic way to deal with it), budget restrictions and all these legacy machines from years or decades past, simply don’t have the money to stay ahead.
So, Where Are We?
We have 50 states’ worth of dissimilar systems; some owned by the state, some owned by contractors. Most were purchased as an appliance… to solve a specific problem at that specific time, using what little budget money was available. Very few states have a single equivalent of a Chief Information Officer (CIO) to drive future purchases towards a single vision. Each department or division has their own and, based on when that area began, could be using very different technology than the people in the offices right next to them. To repair this would require a moderate overhaul of the state government organization and cost billions. You can guess that’s not going to happen anytime soon. So, we need to be patient, realize how this all came about, realize it’s really no one’s fault and try to be a little more understanding when the person you’re talking to at the state doesn’t have the answer you’re looking for.