Municipalities — Don’t Go It Alone On IT!

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Every day, our Technology and Civic Engagement team works to bring technology to citizens and government to help make our cities better. While our community is rapidly adapting to technology on a global scale, it is important that we take the time to introduce important technologies to our local governments to make everyday processes even easier. The following blog by Amy Dain of the Collins Center for Public Management at UMass Boston showcases the importance of bringing digital access to our government desks.
— Cathy Wissink

While most sectors of the economy have undergone a revolution in how products and services are delivered, city and town government is beginning its digital evolution.

The cautious pace of change so far is understandable.  Our public managers have figured out, through decades of practice, how to deliver a wide array of critical services, on tight budgets. The potholes get filled; the businesses inspected; the houses permitted; the police dispatched. Managers are risk-averse when it comes to changing what works.  Still, entrepreneurial managers are experimenting with IT upgrades. They see the potential benefits that better data systems could provide for them: information to solve problems, increase efficiency, and improve two-way communication with constituents.

What makes less sense is that we have hundreds of city and town governments (351 cities and towns in Massachusetts) figuring out information technology independently, for the most part. Why should every community have a unique information system when they are delivering similar services?  And why should each community have to invest significant resources to figure out which IT systems to purchase? As one DPW director said to me last week, “It doesn’t make sense to have 10 communities using 10 systems.  The cost of that is ridiculous.”

There are many reasons for us to increase the coordination across municipalities to upgrade IT.  Common data standards could enable greater cross-municipal comparison and collaboration in service delivery.  Bulk purchasing will cost each municipality less.  Some issues are so important and tricky, such as the security and privacy of municipal data, that local experimentation may not be the best way to address the risks.  Local managers who have not already overseen IT upgrades could benefit from guidance from experienced IT practitioners. And, without outside support, the cohort of early movers may be smaller than ideal, as the pioneers face relatively higher costs and risks in implementing new information systems.

We need to do more to support the early movers, learn from their experiments, and spread the best solutions.  Right now only a few municipalities use GPS to track plows during a snow emergency.  Many departments of public works (DPWs) have started using IT to communicate with constituents, but a much smaller cohort of DPWs has started to implement robust back-end IT systems for managing the work. DPWs have a long way to go in developing data systems for inventory management.  Wellesley has a strong information system for managing its fleet of vehicles, Boston built an app to schedule road repairs (so utilities dig before a road is resurfaced, and not right after), and other communities are implementing software solutions to a variety of challenges, but we lack good avenues for spreading solutions across the region.

Until now, entrepreneurial individuals in local government have been leading the way with IT upgrades, but efforts have been largely uncoordinated and expensive.  It is time for the local leaders to come together, with support from the state, universities, and regional planning agencies, to learn from each other and to move the digital evolution along more smoothly and systematically.

Amy Dain is an associate with the Government Analytics Program (GAP) at the Collins Center for Public Management at UMass Boston.  

For a more detailed discussion of IT in municipal government, see Amy’s article in CommonWealth Magazine: http://commonwealthmagazine.org/opinion/municipalities-shouldnt-go-it-alone-on-it/

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