Re-examining a truism — technology for technology’s sake

Tuesday - 4/14/2009, 10:20am EDT

For as long as I’ve been covering government technology issues, the mantra has been that agencies should never roll out technology for technology’s sake. I often referred to it as the gadget rule — yes, the gadgets are cool, but… do they help an agency accomplish its mission.

In the government 2.0 world, that has evolved to a debate about the infamous ROI — return on investment. I am doing some research about ROI — how the concept came about, and I’ll continue my search…

But I was reading a wonderful post from Jeffrey Levy, EPA’s director of Web communications, headlined, Social Media: A Way of Thinking. I’d highly recommend the post because he does a wonderful job tapping into the change in thinking that has to go on with some of these government 2.0 initiatives. It is why I’m so fascinated by the book, What Would Google Do?, which goes into a lot of detail about some of the mind-set change that needs to happen.

But here is one of Levy’s points:

Develop some strategy, but don’t wait for the perfect 400-page, $200,000 project plan. Come up with a few bullets and get going.

And it spurred me to think — maybe we are in a new era where we can implement technology for technology’s sake — with the caveat that one simply must have a nascent plan about what they want to accomplish.

My sense is the no tech for tech sake mantra grew out of cost. In the end, most IT programs were big and expensive, so you didn’t want to roll out a big IT system if it didn’t help the agency accomplish its mission more effectively. And in many cases, that is still true.

But for so many of these government 2.0 tools, they simply aren’t that expensive. To me, the mantra should be the Nike rule: Just do it!

As I said in my comment on Levy’s post, rather then going through a whole ROI assessment, I’d ask the simple question: ‘Why are we doing this?… What are we looking to accomplish?… Are we testing a theory?’

In the end, in many cases, these tools can allow an agency to develop a platform that evolves in ways that nobody can predict. All these years later, still one of my favorite cases is the still marvelous Virtual Alabama developed by the Alabama Department of Homeland Security. (I have info about Virtual Alabama here… and a whole bunch of links on my Delicious page.) Without going into detail about Virtual Alabama — you can read it here — the Virtual Alabama team built a platform that the state has used in ways they never predicted. And ways that never would have been part of a ROI assessment.

In then end, start out with some idea — something that you’d like to do better - or faster - or for less money — and then Just Do It! Not everything is going to work - but some will work better then you imagined.

Start with a plan — and then be agile.