E-Pluribus Unum

E-GOVERNMENT IS TOUTED by many as the next great American revolution. Beyond the hype, however, is a growing movement in the United States and other countries to experiment with government-by-Internet. More than 220 countries and territories have websites with links to more than 15,000 government institutions. In the United States, a growing number of federal agencies, states and localities have an Internet presence. There are currently more than 20,000 websites offering government information.

However, the current e-government mantra -- focused on digital divides, killer applications and budget savings -- misses the more compelling questions: Will e-government transform how government interacts with the populace or serve as a convenience for busy citizens and civil servants? Are we on the threshold of a digital democracy or merely heading toward constant policy-by-polling and 24/7 surveillance by law enforcement agencies?

IT Is Not a Cure-All

High-priced technologies generally add unnecessary costs to otherwise poorly managed organizations. In other words, before you can get e-government right, you need to get e-governance right. Poor governance cannot be cured by e-elixirs. Computers and Internet access will not undo corrupt, bloated bureaucracies or ineffective public institutions. Indeed, e-government threatens the political status quo. Political elites and entrenched bureaucrats -- particularly in places where government jobs have high profit margins -- may resist.

Disturbing scenarios arise when we consider how nondemocratic governments will adopt, or co-opt, information technologies. Such regimes treat control of information as a political bedrock. Access to information is constrained or rationed by those in power. Ultimately, information access is less an issue of too few telephones and computers. Rather, education and a "culture of information" are the foundations for enriching the information-poor and building e-governments.

Consider recent events in China. While President Jiang Zemin lauds the power and promise of IT, new regulations on Internet companies prohibit any content that subverts state power or "harms the reputation" of China. Beijing has long blocked direct access to foreign news and politically-oriented websites. Its powerful Ministry of State Security closed websites for posting what it termed "counter-revolutionary content." At least 20 Chinese cities and provinces are creating special police units to monitor Internet activity. Chinese leaders are girding themselves for the mother of all battles -- the control of information. In some respects, they are not far from the truth. China's IT industry is growing 20 percent annually. That means more computers, more Internet entrepreneurs, more Chinese language websites, more chat rooms, more streamed radio and video broadcasts, more users clamoring for additional information. However, it is difficult to draw a line in the silicon and send troops into TiananmenSquare.com.

As the situation in China demonstrates, absent a willingness to use information in a fundamentally different way, e-government may merely reflect the existing tendencies of institutions, or even facilitate more invasive, centralized control. However, in seeking to construct a Great Firewall to defend against foreign incursions, the Chinese may ultimately be building their own Maginot Line, as ineffective against an electronic blitzkrieg as the legendary French fortifications were against fast-moving German soldiers.

High Stakes

Governments of all political persuasions will feel pressure to adapt. Investors will increasinngly factor in the e-government environment -- meaning less red tape, more transparent regulations, easier payment of fees -- into business decision making. A country's or city's future competitiveness will rest on how it positions itself in the race for investment. Governments, especially in smaller countries and localities that are not prepared to reform, will watch businesses migrate elsewhere, or never invest at all. But online services for businesses will not neatly translate into more participatory governance for citizens. Take Peru, home to Latin America's first online land registry, and its recent election woes. Cutting-edge e-government initiatives did nothing to prevent President Alberto Fujimori's use of dirty tricks to remain in power.

None of this diminishes the democratizing potential of e-government. Online government need not simply mean fewer lines or faster permits. A recent poll found that the leading aspiration for e-government among U.S. citizens is to increase government accountability. E-government also offers new avenues for participation in public policy-making. What could be more democratic than that?

There are plenty of caveats to implementing e-government. Digital divides exist within societies. Unraveling the complexities of online government requires sustained political commitment and a measure of techno-literacy among leaders. Privacy and security concerns must be addressed. Yet, the operative issue for e-government is the readiness of governments to democratize access to information. Are they ready to replace command-and-control with click-and-connect? For the moment, the digital divide applies equally to all levels of government. Yet, to the extent that citizen-oriented approaches are adopted, e-government may signal a step toward e-Pluribus Unum.

The Talent Chase

By James P. Ware, vice president of The Concours Group, a management consulting, research and education company based in Kingwood, Texas.

ATTRACTING AND RETAINING IT talent remains an immensely important and difficult challenge for CIOs. Even though the appeal of dotcoms has slackened in recent months, the shortage of well-educated, experienced IT professionals is still very real. However, recent research by The Concours Group and a number of its clients suggests that attracting and retaining high-performing staff requires a good deal more than an aggressive recruiting program and a competitive salary structure. In Concours's experience you must also develop and maintain a high-performance work environment that makes IT professionals want to sign up and stay to contribute to your organization over time.

To develop an organizational climate that motivates and inspires your staff, ask -- and answer -- these eight critical questions.

1. Do our IT professionals understand our business vision and strategy, and their role in it? Line of sight to the company's mission is critical in a time when employees have multiple choices not only about where they work but about how much effort they expend in order to help the company be successful. Interest in the company and its mission is influenced far more by your staff's line of sight to purpose and strategy than by formal policies, procedures, organizational structures or even the opportunity to work with leading-edge technologies.

2. Do our IT professionals understand how the company and IT organization create value for our end customers? To be truly customer oriented, an organization must be filled with employees who understand the end customers, care about creating value for them and are capable of doing so. Are we providing our IT professionals with the information, skills and resources (time, materials, training, access) that they need to meet customer demands? Are our employees fully engaged and committed to the organization and its goals? Do we understand who our high performers are and what they expect of us?

It is easy to talk about high performers and pay lip service to the concept of listening to them, but it's rare for an organization to be intensely focused on the few genuine stars who design and produce the new systems, connect with key end users and provide exceptional service. A star IT professional can keep 10 or 20 ordinary employees fully productive and focused on the right goals and activities. These are the staff people you must be absolutely certain you don't lose.

3. Do we encourage creativity and innovation, even when it threatens to disrupt the values we believe in? Change and creative destruction are at the core of the economy today, and the source of competitive advantage is creating new value, not just leveraging established approaches. Thus, creativity and innovation are at the heart of business success. You can't afford to assess new ideas in terms of their source or who proposed them; ideas must be allowed to compete on their merits, and organizations must be willing to take risks on untested ideas. To attract and retain good people you have to create a work culture that thrives on innovation and values risk-taking.

4. Have we created a work environment where conflict and passionate disagreement are not only OK, but actively encouraged? Conflict and diversity are at the heart of creativity. In today's fast-paced global economy, the winners will be those companies that invent genuinely new business models and new means of creating value for customers and shareholders. Dissenters and debaters must be encouraged, rewarded and heard. Successful organizations where IT professionals enjoy working are not peaceful places.

5. Do we actively share the company's success with all our employees? The key is to create a sense of fairness and equity, and to reward real contributions -- not just to be nice but to encourage increased effort. The challenge is to create an attractive -- even compelling -- place to work and to build a sense of common interest in the company's success. Remember that your IT professionals want to feel good about the company; pride in where we work is as important to most of us as financial rewards.

6. Have we created a strong sense of community in which all employees -- both full-time and part- time -- act and feel as if this is their company? A community in which employees feel and act like owners is an important concept that goes well beyond common thinking about commitment. A deep identity with the organization, and the willingness to take risks or put in extra effort, is a critical ingredient in high-performing companies. Feeling like part of a community also means that individuals develop strong relationships with their peers, and that they feel included in a social sense as well as a business one. It's much harder to leave an organization that you feel deeply connected to.

7. Are we capturing, sharing and leveraging the knowledge we have built up through our human assets? Do we have a culture and a technology infrastructure that helps employees find the information and knowledge they need from anywhere in the organization? Is there a sense of collective commitment that includes employees helping each other through the sharing of ideas, insights, knowledge and skills? People want to work in an organization that respects their knowledge and encourages two-way sharing.

8. Are we taking full advantage of individual skills and knowledge? There are few things more demotivating than believing you are underused. Individuals want to feel needed and to know they are contributing. But even more important, they want to feel challenged, stretched and developed over time. Employees don't leave an organization that they believe values them, offers them an opportunity to contribute and to grow, and takes advantage of their abilities and experience.

If you address these issues, I guarantee that the IT professionals you need will aactually beat down the doors to work with and for you -- and it will be a lot more fun for you too.

This story, "E-Pluribus Unum" was originally published by CIO.

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