The Virtual Government Manager
(Public Management Magazine, July 2000)
By Richard Carson
I am a first-generation virtual government manager. I began using the personal computer on a daily-business basis in the early 1980s, had oversight responsibility for developing some specific professional computer-system applications, and once even accidentally found my way into the computer system for the national defense command.
There is an easy test for figuring out if you, too, are a first-generation computer user. If you were raised with a mouse in your hand, then you aren't one. If you were raised thinking that the good mouse was the one at Disneyland, then you are one. Oh, yes, those of us in the first generation went to college and used computers there, but we used batch cards. When we surfed the Internet, there was no World Wide Web. Yes, it's hard to believe, but the Internet once had no pictures and sold nothing.
And how do you know if you are a virtual government manager? This takes a little more explanation. A virtual manager is a person who has mastered the use of all forms of the electronic medium we call "technology," including these:
Intranet/Internet. All virtual managers have access both to an organizational Intranet that connects them to their fellow employees plus the organization's information systems and to the Internet, so they can reach people and systems outside their Intranet.
E-mail. Usually, virtual managers have both governmental and commercial e-mail addresses. This is basically an ethical issue and allows them to pursue separate professional and personal lives. For example, I write quite a bit as my avocation. In other words, my employers don't pay me to write, and I don't use their computer investment to help me get e-mail. My personal record for e-mail messages is exactly 200 in one day. Needless to say, I get a lot of use out of my "delete" key.
Web site(s). Information about a virtual manager is found somewhere on the local government's web site. Virtual managers usually maintain their own web site(s), however, with personal information about them and their interests. I myself have four separate web sites.
Operational systems. Every government is in the business of processing something. For this reason, many governments have computerized one or more of their processes. This means that the virtual manager can track down any activity to find out its status and who is handling it at any given time. My department, for example, is in the business of regulating development. To accomplish this, we have an extensive development permit-tracking system. We also have access through the Intranet to our government's geographic information system (GIS), which provides us with tax maps, aerial photos, and other computerized map products.
Information sources. The advent of the "listserv" and of "e-zines" has provided virtual managers with a viable alternative to surfing the Internet for information. The listserv is a self-subscribing version of the electronic bulletin board that exists for groups of people with like interests who want a communications support group to answer questions. And e-zines are simply electronic magazines that you can download and read.
Remote access. Virtual managers can always get into tbeir office networks by dialing in from any remote location, whether at home or on the road. Enjoying remote access means that you never have to use a disk again. You simply send yourself a file from your office PC's hard drive and download it onto your remote laptop's hard drive.
Electronic "daytimers." No more paper calendars. All your appointments, phone numbers, and even shopping lists are downloaded frequently from your personal computer onto your band-held computer, or vice versa. This also is a timesaver if your administrative assistant has access to your system because it means you don't have to keep two sets of paper daytimers to manage your appointments.
Cellphones. Cellphone and computer technologies are merging, and the cellphone is become a mini-remote computer. If nothing else, it can be used to connect your laptop via remote access to your office computer.
Voice mail. This still is a useful technology but is not yet integrated fully into the greater computer networks. Voice recognition already is under way, however, and it is only a matter of time before such technology will be commercially viable and widely used.
Fax machines. These are basically a dying technology and are the present-day equivalent of the post office. Virtual managers avoid fax machines and only use them as a last resort instead of sending an e-mail attachment. We are forced to use faxes when dealing with low-tech associates or developing countries.
We virtual managers are much more efficient with our time and our communications. Instead of moving a request for a decision from office to office as a paper memo, we can make instantaneous decisions. Like the Wizard of Oz, we lurk behind our screens (albeit computer screens) and direct the operations of our organizations from there.
But is this new electronic efficiency all a good thing? As the Owl said to Winnie the Pooh, "On a scale of 1 to 10, it's not good." The cost of this greater communications and decision-making efficiency is paid in our daily social interaction. As managers, we manage human, equipment, and capital resources. The virtual manager can be lulled into a habit of not dealing face-to-face with people. Let's face it, the hardest part of being a manager is personnel issues. Human beings are much more inefficient and troublesome than computers. The computer screen is mostly indifferent and expresses less emotion, negative or positive.
So how do we virtual managers over come this self-fulfilling prophecy of becoming socially isolated? Good managers do two things. First, they have an open-door policy that allows any employee to walk in and talk to them. Second, they are floor managers, using any pretense to walk around and talk to people. A healthy and successful organization has a human culture and a soul. The leader of an organization needs to embody and embrace these both emotionally and sometimes physically.
Richard H. Carson, Director, Department of Community Develop- ment, Clark County, Washington, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.