IT Revolution

Back when I first started working in the British Columbia government, in 1993, there existed a Crown Corporation called “BC Systems Corporation”, BCSC. Through the 1980s, major pieces of government operations (timber tenuring, financial tracking, health insurance) had been computerized using the finest technology of the era (mostly mainframes) and BCSC had grown up as the central IT branch of the government.

They ran the big machines, the terminals that accessed them and were taking on the newfangled PCs increasingly showing up on the desks of drones like me (I answered correspondence, there still being a brisk trade in “mail” at the time).

The extent to which BCSC was wedded to the technology of the previous era can best be understood by noting that one of their last major accomplishments was writing a web browser, Charlotte, for the 3270 green-screen terminal.

Being stocked full of the finest minds in computerdom, BCSC briskly alienated pretty much all the folks it was supposed to be serving. It’s services were too expensive, the old mainframe systems too inflexible, the response times too long. Shortly after I left government to finish my graduate degree, BCSC was blown up and its functions distributed to IT departments in the Ministries themselves.

And so the process began anew. Just as BCSC had stitched together systems from multiple ministries into a centralized empire over a decade, so too did the centralizing imperative begin to work immediately once again. First e-mail. Then major data centre needs. First by choice, then by fiat, gradually the Ministry IT departments were stripped of line responsibility for their systems and left with a residue of business analysts and managers.

A new wrinkle was added this time around though, in that rather than centralizing entirely to another agency, many of the services were centralized and then bundled off to outside companies. So desktop support was re-centralized and taken over by IBM. The result has been service just as poor as the old days (worse, in fact! back in the BCSC days there was a PC tech co-located right on our office floor, a luxury most government workers could hardly imagine now) with prices just as high.

BCSC was blown up when Ministries realized that they could provide the same services for themselves that BCSC did using PCs, and started doing so. Once the mainframe boys weren’t necessary any more, they were dispensed with, joyfully. Ministries wanted to Get Things Done, and the main role of BCSC was to say You Can’t Do That.

Today we have another round of folks saying You Can’t Do That. The desktop outsource vendor says you can’t have a new computer, and if you do get one, you can’t install any software on it. The server outsource vendor says you can’t afford a system to run your code on. Or if you can, then you need to go through a three month process to get the server first. And the CIO’s office says you can’t run that programming language because it’s not government standard.

And here comes the cloud. Just as the PC freed the Ministries from the mainframe boys, the cloud is going to free folks from IT once again. Need a web site? Need a small system? Maybe an App Engine deployment. Need some data processing? Maybe an EC2 server will do the trick. It’s all well under credit card spending limits. (My first government supervisor, bless her heart, bought me a copy of MS Access on her department credit card so I could avoid the All Databases Must Be Oracle directive and actually Get Some Work Done On My Computer).

The revolution is coming, it’ll start quiet, but it’ll get ugly. Hopefully soon.

Postscript: Michael Weisman, in a comment on my last post points to an article in the Washington Post about superstar CIO Vivek Kundra (coincidentally, the topic of another upcoming post of mine). Says Mr. Kundra, “People have better access to information technology at their homes than they do at work, and that’s especially true in the public sector”. And another great quote from the article: Asked what he typically hears from workers about gov­ernment- or corporate-provided technology, Kundra said, “It’s not a question of whether they don’t like it. They despise it.”

Kundra seems to have hit upon a winning formula: stop saying “no” and start saying “yes”. The career risk of saying “no” is now higher than the risk of saying “yes”. Welcome to the new conservatism. Give the people what they want, or things will get… unpleasant.