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Economic Crisis Demands Leadership from Local Government (Opinion)

March 11, 2009 By

To Tell the Truth was a TV game show that challenged celebrity contestants to correctly identify a central character from three choices. The central character normally had an odd job or had done something significant. Following questioning and voting by celebrity panelists, the show's host would ask, "Will the real [person] please stand up?" At that point the central character identified himself or herself.

2009 is going to be a year when communities will need the real leaders to stand up and tell the truth. The challenges facing our jurisdictions are significant and growing, even as revenues from sales and property taxes, user fees, state shared revenue and other traditional sources are declining. It's tempting in this environment to sit down, shut up and hope the storm of difficulty passes. Digital Communities members know that isn't the answer.

Instead they've chosen to stand up and take responsibility for helping identify a way forward for themselves and the nation. The Digital Communities CIO Task Force created a policy briefing paper for the Obama administration that identifies four areas where information and communication technology (ICT) will play a critical role in ensuring communities' long-term sustainability and viability.

  • As governments look to invest in critical infrastructure, it should expand to include ICT: voice, video, data, hardware, software and other services supported by broadband infrastructure.
  • A national broadband-infrastructure plan should be developed and implemented consistent with Obama's promise to "get true broadband to every community in America" and the provisions of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Resolution #104, which calls for a national broadband policy.
  • The federal-state-local partnership should focus on encouraging and creating incentives for regional and interlocal cooperation and solutions through improvements to the grant process.
  • Digital Communities members support the president's plan to appoint a federal chief technology officer to ensure that our government and its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century - with special emphasis on further development and extension of standards, guidelines and protocols for electronic commerce and government service delivery.

Difficult economic conditions and global uncertainties cause people to look to government for relief in a way that hasn't happened in decades. Public "bailouts" of major financial institutions, and even whole industries, are examples. As part of this larger, activist role in the economy, people will expect more of government. In particular, government must be more transparent, accountable and participatory. ICT will be critical to the ability to exchange information between government and citizens, and the security of networks, personally identifiable information and data are paramount.

All this can be done by further implementation of Web 2.0/Gov 2.0 social networking tools and applications; technical and organizational consolidation and virtualization; implementation of cloud computing, which shifts the focus from individual, fixed infrastructure to Web-based connectivity and services; and expansion of business analytics/intelligence and content-management applications to create, identify, maintain and share information more efficiently.

But it won't happen by accident, and the stakes have never been higher. If government can't meet expectations, our social fabric will unravel and diminish our shared institutions. Success will require IT professionals to develop and demonstrate an understanding of the broad challenges facing our nation, regions and communities. We also must create formidable and workable strategies.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently put it this way: "It feels like we've entered a period of reduced expectations, a time when we may be tempted to temper our optimism and scale back our ambitions, but no matter what happens with the economy or how long this recession lasts, I believe our digital lives will only continue to get richer." I believe that's the truth, and government must do its part; now it's time for the real leaders to please stand up.

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