ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - October 2001


Issue Highlight — A Day in the Life of a Fool
- A Day in the Life of a Fool asks whether
e-government will improve government or make
it more distant from those it is supposed to
serve without actually improving efficiency, as

  One From Column B                                                                         Peter Block

 In This Issue...
The Big Bang Theory of Teambuilding and Leadership or Listen Up!
Just a Little Suggestion
Highly Satisfied Customers
Gotcha! Office Politics at Work

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Brief Cases

Return to NFC Index

A Day in the Life of a Fool

In the fine tradition of Y2K, re-engineering, the dot-com illusion, SAP and the Holland Tulip scheme early in the 17th century, there is another train headed down the tracks that goes by the name of e-government. Its arrival was noted by C-SPAN, my favorite TV channel and research site, in its recent broadcast of the summer Governor’s Conference. On stage were a senior partner in Accenture (the new name for Andersen Consulting); re-engineering guru Michael Hammer; and an IT specialist, who took us through a typical day when e-government becomes a reality and reaches its full potential.

Here is a taste of the day the IT specialist forecasts:

  1. We begin the day on our computer, receiving a welcome message, a thought for the day, and a summary of what the day has in store for us. On the screen is our schedule, major meetings, and a graphic listing of projects that are important and urgent, projects that are important but longer term, projects that are unimportant and urgent, and projects that are unimportant and in no hurry at all.
  2. Next we turn to a screen that gives us a detailed project management summary of the status of the urgent and important projects. Each project has its own bar chart, its own color coding to indicate elements in trouble and places ahead of schedule, budget status, staffing, milestones, and a color-coded display of the morale and motivation of each of the major players.
  3. E-mail is next. We triage the e-mails and flag them into categories of very important, extremely urgent, and immediate attention. We will answer the e-mails late in the day or in the evening.
  4. We turn next to our human resources management screen. On this we can monitor the cost of phone calls, by each direct report, we get a summary of Internet abuse so that we might consider possible corrective action.
  5. We are then reminded which performance appraisals are due. To ease our workload, we can choose from a menu of personal performance characteristics. After we rate an employee, the program will translate our judgments into paragraphs of positive feedback language to be presented to the employee. These are sent to the employee and they are reminded of their right to a conversation if absolutely necessary.
  6. Next we log into an electronic conference call concerning zoning variations for the construction of a strip mall in an area covered by wetlands restrictions. The site map, the regulations, the proposed construction, and the history and profile of the developer are all available to me, only a click away. The developer also has access to this data online.
  7. After the call, we can turn to the business development screen that gives the status of our marketing effort to bring companies into the downtown area. This program gives me a list of prospects and the content of our last contact with them, it lists their interests, their strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities. It also lists their preferences for food, humor, social distance, and any other special needs they might have.

  I could go on, but the future that the IT specialist offers us becomes apparent. Even though I took a little editorial license with the possibilities, there is inherent—almost religious—belief in this world that organizations, government in this case, will take a big step toward better serving its citizens by automating itself and managing its world through electronic technology. It is this belief that I wish we would examine carefully, for the price of the technology is astronomic and the human experience of living this way can be deadly, even for the MTV generation.

  Of course the technology offers some real advantages, but e-government is another movement that takes a reasonable idea and elevates it to the level of universal solvent and techno-spiritual mandate.

Cause for Restraint
What goes unannounced in the selling of technology are things like the studies of cities that have gone electronic for matters relating to citizen involvement such as voter registration, discussion on issues, feedback on service. They found that the people who participated electronically were the same people who used to participate in person. The amount of citizen involvement did not change, even though the ease of participation was increased.

  We need to also remember that many of the services in the private sector, which have been automated, have actually deteriorated. We now have to wait so long to talk to a customer service person that they warn us about the waiting time.

  We are constantly told that electronic service and e-business is serving us well, but what is more likely the case is that institutions confuse the cost of service with the quality of service. When the cost goes down, which is the real impact of automation, this does not mean the service or the quality of decisions is improved. Granted there are some organizations that offer great service, but most of these offered great service before the electronic revolution.

  Returning to the Governor’s Conference on e-business, the presentation on the electronic day was preceded by Michael Hammer promoting re-engineering concepts. This is in the face of evidence that re-engineering rarely fulfilled its promise, and in at least half the cases has been considered unsuccessful. Why would we sell to government what has been only mildly successful in the private sector?

Dream Along With Me
The closer in this conference was the partner with Accenture. His job was to define the benefits of e-government and he made the most interesting declaration of all. He said that each state could expect to save $1 billion over four years if they went electronic. He said these savings would include the redeployment of certain personnel. I don’t know where he planned to redeploy these people, but this revealed the real attraction of the technology, which is the elimination of jobs. The term, “redeployment” takes the sting out of the layoffs, as if there is another job waiting for all these people, and only required a little rearrangement.

  The deal being proposed: The private sector opens a large new market for the software, the equipment and the consulting services required to design the electronic switchover, and the government meets this interest with a rationale for reducing head count and the political advantage of looking fashionable.

Paying Attention to Our Experience
Whether in government or the private sector, what is sold as a tool becomes a way of life and a way of thinking. If we are truly committed to more efficient government, we might consider the following:

  1. Improve the processes. Government processes undoubtedly need rethinking. Why not have faith that people in government have the capacity to invent ways to speed processes and make them more citizen friendly. All through the 1980s the private sector used the methods of total quality management to become customer focused. They trusted their own people, and through deep involvement changed the way they did business. They improved quality without the huge investment in technology.

  2. The element of government that is closest to citizens is local government. My fear is that the governors will embrace e-government, but they will implement it through statewide legislation where they set standards, make requirements, and change everything but how state government itself operates. I would support change in government if the decision makers, the governors, and the legislators who usually get involved to enable the governors’ intentions, realized that it is their own mandates and requirements that make much of government so cumbersome.

      Let those who buy the re-engineering story and the technology story start with their own jobs and decide their own way of operating is a critical part of the problem. We could re-design the governors’ jobs so that everything they needed to do appeared on the computer monitor on their desk. They come in in the morning and the screen says, “Hello governor, here is your thought for the day.” Let our executives live for a year the kind of automated existence they are considering creating for those at the lower levels.

  3. Recognize that the government exists to serve the public interest. It does not exist to facilitate business interests. Most of the examples about the joys of technology in improving government are about making it easy to do business with the government. Any process that is truly democratic and inclusive is going to take longer, and we should be thankful for that. Make the process more efficient, but do not forget the intention of government, which is to respond to needs no other segment of society can do on its own. Doing business with business is not the core purpose of government. There is more to community life than economic development for the sake of the already wealthy.

The Point
We need to accept the fact that we are living out a technology and efficiency story that is as much myth as reality. Studies in the classroom have shown that the only difference in having a computer in a classroom is that students learn more about the computer. Reading, writing, and adding do not improve.

  Technology in medicine has made a difference in the well being of those in the middle and upper classes. The real problem in health care is that it remains out of the reach of a large segment of society. Technology in business has reduced costs by reducing people, but mostly in manufacturing and distribution. It has not delivered better service, more meaningful work, or institutions that are more socially responsible.

  Government may need to change its way of doing business, but we could help that most by improving the political arena, which drives a lot of government bureaucracy. The government is inefficient, in part, because it has to defend itself against our anger and our expectation that it is there to meet our parochial interests. If we, as citizens, could work out among ourselves what we expect the government to adjudicate for us, the cost and speed of government would improve.

  Then we still might be able to begin our day by saying hello to each other, keep technology as simply another tool, and avoid another well of dehumanizing disappointment.

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