The Incongruous Sec. 'Low-Tech' Gates

A disturbing, yet a mostly unnoticed, quote by Defense Secretary Robert Gates appeared at the bottom of an Associated Press article about 1,500 Pentagon PCs being taken offline because of cyberattacks. The AP reports, "When asked if his own e-mail account was affected, Gates revealed, 'I don't do e-mail. I'm a very low-tech person.'" (The comment didn't go unnoticed by my colleague, Tom Shoop, who wrote about the odd statement in FedBlog.)

This quote should disturb anyone, not to mention government executives, who are interested in government improving the way it operates. Information technology has progressed to the point that it is intimately intertwined in any organization's business processes and, therefore, strategic goals. It now can help drive an organization's strategy and, sometimes, even determine it, as it has done at Defense. For more than a decade, the Defense Department has spent hundreds of billions of dollars pursuing what it calls network-centric warfare, the idea that information, analyzed and supplied by an intricate set of integrated networks, will drive war strategy and help commanders formulate real-time tactics on the battlefield. That's why Gate's comment is so out of step with what the department that he oversees is doing day in and day out -- and on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Wired blogger Noah Scachtman found the comment screwy and not as serious.)

Is this a generational thing? Or is it a simple misunderstanding that IT is so much more than the email program residing on your PC?

It doesn't really matter, however. Any executive, especially one in charge of Defense, should understand that IT, properly aligned with an agency's business processes, can improve, and even help determine, how an agency will meet its mission. That means you need to understand IT and not be so boastful as to describe yourself as being "low-tech." Discussions of what IT can accomplish, what IT can contribute to an organization's strategic goals and business processes, deserve to be held in an agency's executive meetings. The unfortunate reality, however, is that many executives and leaders in government don't hold those discussions, and agencies' abilities to better manage IT suffer.