Dissecting the Public and Private Sectors: ”Have To” vs. “Want To”

My question was simple: What are the main differences between the ways the public sector—government agencies, administrations, defense organizations, civilian agencies—deploys technology solutions versus the ways its private, commercial counterparts do it?

My initial guess was spelled out in the title of this article: There's "Have To," and then there's "Want To."

I took this basic premise into two conversations this month—one with Jan Rosi, president of TOWER Software North America, and one with Steve Papa, founder and chairman of Endeca. And I came away with this conclusion: It's pretty much true, but there are subtle shades of variation in the answer to that question.

"There's a whole set of government problems where you just can't measure the business benefit," starts Steve Papa. "There are IT benefits—and they are sensitive to those things—but there are other benefits that are so enormous that you can't use them for a realistic calculation. For instance, how do you put a value on saving lives, or preventing an attack? You just can't put a value on that in any meaningful way. The normal metrics—Does this increase sales? Or decrease the time to manufacture something?—just don't apply," Steve said.

"There's an increasing citizen-centric nature to government," said Jan Rosi. "Years ago, governments were very internally focused. But now, with things like the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), they have to be more citizen-oriented."

There's that phrase...they have to be.

"People are demanding better services to citizens," Jan continued. "Governments have to compete in a global economy. And to be competitive, they have to be better at managing things, such as immigration, for example, or approving new businesses...things that help them compete. They have to be more efficient from a classic competitive perspective. That's driving them to be more service-oriented."

That sounds suspiciously like the mission statement of a Global 1000 commercial enterprise, not that of a government department or a civilian agency serving the public. Doesn't it?

"It's all about good management," said Steve. "You set goals and work to reach them. In the private sector, the goals are financially driven. In the public sector, the goals are related to different, specific outcomes."

So my original premise—that the public and private sectors are fundamentally different—seems to be eroding right before my eyes. It would seem at this point that the similarities outweigh the differences. I'm glad I didn't stop there, because that would be wrong.

Measuring the Unmeasurable

Knowing exactly how technology is helping public sector organizations is a frustrating endeavor. There are just too many secrets.

"When I go to conferences, and talk about finding/discovering/analyzing information in ways never before possible, people often come up to me and very excitedly say ‘this has made such a difference in my work,'" related Steve, talking about the level of feedback he gets regarding his products' impact on public sector organizations. But that's as far as it goes. "I don't have security clearance, so I don't really have any way of knowing what really happened!"

If a technology partner such as Steve or Jan doesn't participate in an open feedback loop, I wondered, how can they know if they've helped? "It is frustrating," replied Steve. "I think I could help them more if I understood what they were trying to do. But I can't do that, because they can't share all their problems. But the greatest frustration is the lack of a competitive motivation among most government agencies; there's a lack of urgency. In the military or defense implementations, it's different. It's not a lack of urgency; it's the sheer magnitude of the things they're trying to do that slows them down."

"A lot of people in the public sector want to do the right thing by the citizens, and want to spend tax dollars in the best way, they really do," added Jan. "So that's definitely a hot button. And they're also very careful about compliance—if they are required to keep records, or be responsive to inquiries, or even share information in the war on terror, these will be the key drivers" in their decision to implement technology.

Do the metrics used to measure success in business compare in any way to those used by the public sector? "The performance cost/benefit analysis is a lot harder," admitted Steve. "How do you quantify the benefits of better information discovery that you can't measure? You don't! When these agencies look at their budgets, they have to think of how to best spend them. They decide ‘what's not that important of all the things we do.' There's still a lot of stuff that's not all that important...that's how they're trimming their budgets.

"Whether or not the intelligence community has a hard metric, I don't know. My speculation is that it's a judgment call," continued Steve. "We have this much to invest; how can we be the most effective? They can see that the speed at which they process information improves. There's a big productivity gain AND the potential to see something you wouldn't have otherwise seen. The end result is a better job."

KMWorld Covers
for qualified subscribers
Subscribe Now Current Issue Past Issues