August 12, 2010 By Russell Nichols
Photo: Milwaukee County 4th District Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic/Photo courtesy of Milwaukee County
Milwaukee County has a lot of catching up to do in terms of technology upgrades -- which means Marina Dimitrijevic plays a critical role.
As the supervisor of the county's Fourth District and chairwoman of the County Board Committee on IT, Dimitrijevic has been pushing to modernize IT systems to save money, save paper and give the public more say in government affairs. Her latest effort to launch an online legislative access program won funding approval from the County Board of Supervisors and should be up and running by the end of the year.
"The way we do business is really behind the times," she said. "The city of Milwaukee has had this [legislative access program] for over 15 years."
Strapped for cash, the county entered into an intergovernmental agreement with the city and purchased the software at a discounted price of about $100,000, she said. The program, called Legistar, streamlines legislation tracking and gives citizens on-demand access to data from committee and county board meetings. County officials expect to see a return on investment -- although it's too early to tell exactly how much -- as the software reduces paper usage and employee labor costs.
"No longer will we have someone here sitting at a copy machine making copies for hours," Dimitrijevic said.
Local governments nationwide have been searching for answers to the same question: How can technology save us money? Portable technologies, such as iPads, have caught the attention of local officials, including those in Birmingham, Ala., who hope to put the tablet computers in the hands of the mayor, city councilors and department heads as soon as possible.
For many government agencies, systems that cut down on paper usage have been a money-saving solution as well as catalysts for much-needed upgrades in some cases. For instance, the legislative workflow program in Milwaukee County, Dimitrijevic added, represents only one phase of a long-overdue IT overhaul.
With the software in place, the county will proceed with plans to provide archived video from committee and county board meetings, adding another layer of transparency to the website, which currently provides audio streaming and archiving. The live streaming upgrade will include special microphones and rotating webcams that point to people speaking. In the future, Dimitrijevic hopes to have a system that can receive expert testimony via satellite from specialists in the field.
These infrastructure upgrades, she said, also signify the county's push for more public participation. Citizens will be able to watch committee meetings from the comfort of their own homes, track pieces of legislation online and more easily obtain open records requests.
"Everything is in their hands rather than them having to come down to the courthouse and ask for information or attend a public committee meeting," Dimitrijevic said, adding that the resource allows residents to see how representatives are voting on issues they care about.
As the youngest person on the county board, Dimitrijevic has made transparency one of her main priorities. She recently introduced a resolution requiring that campaign finance reports of all county elected officials and candidates for office go online. Once again, the county is behind the curve as she noted that the city of Milwaukee and Wisconsin have already implemented such a measure, giving citizens free access to view political contributions.
"We are way behind and change is scary," she said. "But you have to start with something."