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Section III: A Public Value Framework for Government IT Assessment

This framework is designed to assist government IT executives and analysts in understanding and measuring the value to the public of government IT investments. The main goal is to produce an assessment of public returns that is credible, persuasive, and highly relevant to the investment decisions faced by the government. We use value here, rather than return to emphasize the broad scope of the framework. Most methods for assessing return on investment focus on financial or economic metrics; this approach includes a much broader view of how IT investments can produce results of value to citizens or to the society as a whole.(4) This concept of value includes more than the usual financial or economic metrics common in ROI analysis. It is a new and expanded way of understanding the results of government IT expenditures.

We call this set of ideas a framework to indicate that it is more than a particular method for public value assessment. It is broad in scope so that it can be applied to virtually any government IT investment, from simple Web sites to governmentwide information systems and architectures. It is broad in scope because this range of investments requires a comparable range of assessment methods. Our framework, therefore is a way of thinking about and organizing the analysis of a family of problems that can encompass many methods. A spreadsheet, for example, is a framework for working on a broad class of problems or analytical tasks. Any particular spreadsheet may include specific methods, such as scenario analysis or a net present value calculation. Instead of guiding the assessment process in terms of calculations in a matrix, however, this framework provides an analysis process that starts with a high level view of the IT investment and then drills down through successive steps to identify the specific measures and methods that will reveal and document public value.

In this way, the framework offers both a systematic way of thinking about public value and a way to apply that thinking to particular IT investment decisions. The drilling down process is necessary to tailor a specific public value assessment to the nature of a particular investment decision. The framework shows how to take into account how public value can change across the many interests of citizens and groups in interacting with governments. In the morning, for example, an executive doing business with the government may think about how IT speeds payments on her government contracts, in the evening while helping with homework she may observe how computers improve the quality of schools, and while watching the news on TV at night she might learn how a new crime mapping system makes the neighborhood safer. These ways of thinking about public returns include both easily measured value, like improved financial flows, as well as highly subjective ones like public safety, service quality, or government integrity. A framework for public value assessment must provide a way to deal with these many perspectives and possible measures of public value.

Not every aspect of public value is relevant for a particular IT investment. The Washington State Digital Archives project, for example, had no particular public safety related goals, but is of considerable value to genealogists and local historians. Our framework begins the process of narrowing and focusing by starting with the three basic elements of analyzing public value: the investment, the government operations affected, and the stakeholders. At the beginning of a public value assessment, an analyst often knows that there are many connections among theses three elements, but those connections are poorly specified and understood. The situation might be described by the overlapping parts of Figure 5 below. The public value is to be found by unpacking, so to speak, the area of overlap. The task of the assessment, therefore, is to identify the connections and gather data about how the IT investment produces value for the relevant stakeholders.

Close attention to all three elements is essential. The connections among these elements are the keys to a fully informed public value assessment. The framework provides a way of describing these connections to show how public value is generated and the risks involved therein. Focusing on one or two elements alone cannot reveal the necessary scope of public values involved in an IT investment or how they can be assessed. The risks of slighting one or another of these elements in an assessment can be substantial. In addition to missing significant public returns, such limited thinking can lead to stakeholder resistance, flawed technology decisions, or poor integration with or disruption of business processes.

Analyzing those connections can, in principle, start in any part of the problem. Ultimately, of course, these three elements must be considered together in order to ensure that the value assessment for any particular investment project or system is tailored to the specific value context, investment situation, and the beneficiaries involved. In practice, however, the assessment must begin somewhere. The framework presented below describes the logic and methods that guide the assessment process.

The sequence of activities shown for an assessment is not designed or intended, however, to suggest how IT investment decisions should be made.

Figure 5. The Basic Elements in the Public Value Framework
Figure 5. The Basic Elements in the Public Value Framework