Moving at Government Speed


Bing image from the prompt: "lego figure walking with difficulty through chest deep water in a lego swimming pool" (See Note #1 for an explanation about this picture)

This is a reduced version of the Tectonic Speed of Government, Part 8: "Walking through Water". The longer version can be found here:

The post is a message of support for Government IT Professionals. 

I edited this piece for posting on Government CIO Outlook, where they assigned the generic title "Technology Adoption in Government Sectors" Here, I've fallen back on the title "Moving at Government Speed"


All of the ideas expressed in this article are my personal statements and opinions, and do not reflect the opinions/statements of the City of Urbana.


This article is a message of support and camaraderie to government IT leaders everywhere. I am sharing these thoughts because they help me function within the constraints of government, and I hope they do the same for you.

“Tectonic” is how I describe the speed of government technology change. That’s the title of my blog series ( exploring why government IT projects take a long time - and ways to deal with that pace. “Tectonic” is the adjective because, like the earth’s plates, sudden shifts can change the landscape. The COVID-19 pandemic is an extreme example of such a rupture.

However, this article is *not* about sudden shifts; this article is about the other aspect of Tectonic speed: the excruciatingly slow times when the plates’ movement is imperceptible and seems to create nothing but friction. 

After describing the problem (for which there is no solution!) I will end on a more upbeat note with some benefits of this speed, because the only part of it that we can change is our attitude.

Plates of the Earth Grinding Away Slowly

Other blogs in the Tectonic Speed series use metaphors to describe government technology change: dragging a stopped train, stepping onto a glass floor, and the sport of curling. But all of those are about momentum and progress over a longer timeline, looking broadly over multi-year government IT projects.

This article slices time more granularly and focuses on the micro-steps, the process of guiding IT projects day by day. These micro-steps aren’t milestone events like signing a contract or going live, but they are the reality of projects.

With remote implementations, we experience these micro-steps mostly as a series of emails that trickle by. (I miss the in-person projects that were normal in my early career when you would just walk down the hall to ask a question!)

What’s the Email Equivalent of “You’re on Mute”?

Because everyone in IT these days is overtasked (and multitasking) there are always gaps in the timeline for responses. For example:

  • The vendor emails us a question about the ongoing implementation.
  • I translate the question into options for our end-users.
  • A flurry of emails occurs, and/or we schedule a meeting to occur days later.
  • Once we have our users’ answer, I translate that into a response the vendor can use. More emails may go back and forth until we resolve it.
  • Days later another question comes up and the cycle repeats.

As much as this is true for all IT projects, now consider the extra difficulty of managing government IT. Government projects require input from busy public servants on irregular schedules – like firefighters on a 24/48 schedule where they work once every three days. 

During these micro-steps, my frustration is this: I can clearly picture the end goal and even how to get there, but moving forward takes more effort and time than you expect. It's like standing in chest-deep water at one end of a large pool. You can clearly see the other side and you know that you just need to walk there. But you are in chest-deep water, so it is a slog to move forward with each step. 

That is the challenge with these slow-moving government IT projects. Even if you have a clear vision of the goal of the project, you know that it will take many months (or years) to make it happen. It is a frustrating way to make change, but it’s the only way.

The Happier Ending 

However, on another level this speed is necessary. Government IT is constrained by resources – especially human ones. Without this speed, technological change would come faster than a government organization could absorb.

To end on a positive note, here are three benefits of the speed of walking through water for the IT leaders who must accept this pace:

  • You can work across many areas simultaneously. Here is a mental image: juggling round (inflated) balloons. You can keep more slowly moving balloons in the air than tennis balls.
  • Obstacles, threats, and opportunities move slowly, too. This helps you see them early and react thoughtfully.
  • The slower speed lets you focus on technique, like an athlete who trains their form by running underwater. Do things right the first time and you will reduce problems later.

Ultimately, remember that the slow pace of government IT change is normal and use the pace to focus on making correct decisions at the optimal time.


Note #1 - The original version of the post used a picture, which I liked because it was a cool picture without a face, and gave the right idea about how I envisioned walking through water would look.


Later, I gave a presentation and used Bing Image Creator to generate a version of the picture, which I'm not as thrilled with:

Bing image from prompt: "person wading through deep water, pointilism"

For this post, I used Bing again to generate a Lego version of the picture. Why Legos? This was a reference to the other time I edited an article for CIO Outlook, where I used a picture with a miniature toy version of Spam (second one, below) to replace this original picture:

The miniature version: