The Fall and Rise of U.S. Public Infrastructure

Opinion: America is bolstering its technology infrastructure, from security to health care.

Having had the opportunity to travel abroad this summer, I found myself comparing things: How good is their food compared with ours? How good is their public transportation system? How safe are they? From terrorism? From disease? From voter fraud?

Those are very different questions, of course, with very different degrees of importance. But it did raise the question for me: How does our technology infrastructure compare to those of other developed countries?

Competitiveness was one of the issues that dominated the 1992 presidential campaign, and was seized upon by candidate Bill Clinton as one of his pet themes. President Clinton made public-private partnerships one of the linchpins of his administration.

Its also something that well be grappling with this year as we turn our attention to the 2008 presidential primaries and general election.

Today, while the United States remains the wealthiest nation in the world, with a leading per capita GDP of $43,500 and total GDP of more than $13.21 trillion, the CIA Factbook also notes that "long-term problems include inadequate investment in economic infrastructure."

So recent articles noting that the United States is lagging in the area of health care IT must not have come as a big surprise. But this begs the question of what we are doing about it, and where else we are lagging.

The answers may be surprising to some nattering nabobs of negativism (to borrow from William Safire). It turns out that while were lagging in some areas, were actually ahead in others and doing our best to catch up in the rest.

As reported by Lisa Vaas, Chris Preimesberger, Darryl Taft, and Carol Pinchefsky in the pages of eWEEK, the United States is actually in the process of upgrading public sector infrastructure in many basic services that go beyond the obvious national security needs.

From health care IT to emergency responsiveness, U.S. implementations that lag behind international standards are rapidly gaining ground or are earmarked for improvement.

Areas of concern remain: electronic voting is one that leaps to mind.

Indeed, the size and complexity of the U.S. political system and the difficulty of overcoming a hodgepodge of legal and regulatory hurdles help explain why its difficult for public IT infrastructure to stay on the cutting edge. A myriad of regulations, from HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) privacy rules to intricate local restrictions on voting processes, tend to hamper reform and technological fixes.

Ryan Turner, a technology policy analyst formerly with OMB Watch, also noted that its difficult to create long-term strategies given the way power shifts between the Congress and the president. "We dont have an R&D mechanism thats a proper framework. Other countries invest more in R&D across the board," he said.

And then theres Sept. 11. Its impossible to know how things would have played out domestically had the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon not taken place. But one thing for sure is that those events caught our attention and, in some cases, diverted it. The momentum created by the kind of public-private partnerships championed by former President Clinton has slowed considerably.

Gartner Analyst Barbara Gomolski noted that 9/11 created "a bit of a diversion" in terms of public technology policy and planning. But, she said, federal agencies have become more focused on becoming more operationally efficient. "Theyre starting to look at things in terms of organizational priorities rather than discrete programs," she said.

There arent many programs afoot to address the fact that the chocolate mousse is still better in France, but as the articles in this series acknowledge, much is being done in disparate areas to address areas of weakness in public IT infrastructure.


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