Government Technology
By Bill Schrier: Making technology work for a city government.

Open Cities

October 28, 2009 By Bill Schrier

Open Cities conference - click for more In 1940 the French declared Paris an "open" city so the invading Nazi Army would not destroy it while capturing it. Today modern cities are starting to declare themselves "open" in slightly more trusting ways, by exposing their data and information to all citizens and, indeed, to anyone on the Internet. By declaring ourselves "open" we hope to marshal an army of citizens, developers and analysts to give us new insights into governing and better engagement with the people we serve.

I've had the opportunity to participate in a couple of fascinating conferences lately. One was the Open Cities conference sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation in Washington DC. The other was "Future in Review", Mark Anderson's FiReGlobal conference held in mid-October, for the first time here in Seattle.

The theme is consistent: city governments, by opening their information, their data, their engagement processes, can generate a wealth of new ideas and understandings which make them more efficient and effective, and more robust, exciting places, with improved quality of life.

The old model, used for 250 years or more, is for a City is to collect as much data as possible about problems, its responses, services it provides and the general city environment. Then the typical city hires analysts or consultants - experts, if you will - to pore over the data and discern patterns. These experts then make recommendations for policy, action or changes.

Oh yes, we try not to forget regular citizens in this. We'll present the experts' ideas to citizens in public meetings for their "input". And citizens can give feedback, one at a time, for two or three minutes each, in a public forum. A terrifying (or wonderful) example of this is a recent Seattle City Council budget hearing, 205 minutes of 2 and 3 minute mini-speeches, most focused on just one or two topics (cutback of Library hours) out of a $4 billion budget. If you have a spare three+ hours, watch it here.

Most such public hearings are very one-way - experts or city officials talking at people, citizens talking back individually to elected officials and experts. This is extraordinarily inefficient as dozens or hundreds of people "watch" the mini-speeches, while waiting their turn to speak. Far too much air time is taken up by one-issue, professional gadflies ("citizens in comfortable pants"), often with off-the-wall opinions not representative of most people. Almost as bad, often the only people with time or interest to show up are often homeowners and others who NIMBY ("not in my backyard") the ideas, a negative dynamic. And this whole process is virtually the same as the process we used at the birth of the nation, in 1776, when our largest city was Philadelphia with 50,000 people.

Enter the Internet, and, more specifically, enter Web 2.0. All of a sudden, now in 21st Century America, there is tremendous computing power in the hands of ordinary people - smartphones, desktop and laptop computers. And those devices are connected, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Now you hear ordinary people talk about formerly obtuse technology concepts like databases and spreadsheets and pivot tables and Wi-Fi. And suddenly (at least in historic terms) there are millions of people and trillions of dollars involved in computing and software and development of applications.

In Seattle, for example, 84% of homes have access to the Internet. Nationally, there are 255 million cell phones , 21 million iPhones , and 101,000 iPhone applications . Cities are getting on the bandwagon. Many are publishing detailed crime statistics and even the details of 911 calls on their websites. You can find restaurant inspections and building permits and census statistics.

Public engagement, however, is still broken. We still hold public meetings with death-by-PowerPoint presentations and long lines of people trooping up to the microphone to give their 2 minute NIMBY mini-speeches.

Isn't there a better way?

There are beginnings of better ways. Fedgov websites like Citizens Briefing Book and local sites like ideasforseattle allow some limited input online input from people - allowing people to post their ideas, view each others ideas, and rank them. More robust applications for engagement are emerging, from Seattle's own Ideascale and companies like Athena Bridge. These applications allow people to shape ideas and develop them, commenting and ranking along the way.

But we need even more robustness - we need to bring such software to public meetings, so that, as officials or citizens are presenting ideas and talking, everyone in the room, or gee, anyone on the Internet watching the meeting, can be commenting, tweeting, and ranking, and the results are immediately displayed. The gadflies will quickly see their ideas have little public support.

In many other cases, obscure and even anonymous ideas and unique solutions to problems will emerge and be developed. Then, with open data feeds and citizen-developed applications, those solutions can be quickly tested against the real data published by a city which defines the problem. Almost as fast, options will emerge and consensus may develop on the right approach.

This new, emerging world of public engagement via the Internet and technology is not a panacea. It will take a lot of tweaking and mistakes before usable software emerges and public officials understand how to use it. And it won't work in every case or to address every problem.

Yes, the hordes and armies of citizens are about to invade. So let's declare our cities "open" and embrace them.

P.S. Those readers who are astute will make comments that Seattle is one of the major cities with no data.seattle.gov. Believe me, THAT will soon change!


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Great Recession? Not for this Tech!

October 19, 2009 By Bill Schrier

MIX Members on the Upswing In my previous blog entry, I discussed some of the "downswing" trends in IT in local government. This column will be about trends on the upswing - gaining prominence and resources - in cities and counties. Most of this information came from discussions with CIOs of other large cities and counties around the country, held at the Metropolitan Information Exchange (MIX) conference in Albuquerque in September.

On the rise in local government are cloud computing or hosted services, public safety support, geo-location, award-winning websites, social media use (blogging, twitter, Facebook, YouTube), consolidation, hiring chills or freezes, the "greening" of IT and responding to climate change.

MIX members certainly are leaders in online services, as recognized in the Center for Digital Government's annual best of the web awards. We are all driving more services online, but also struggling to make more data available for transparency and accountability. Those governments receiving awards are doing an exceptional job.

 "Cloud computing" or hosted applications or software-as-a-service (SAAS) are finding fertile ground in government, although only the seeds have been planted - just a few applications are sprouting. Bill Greeves, CIO of Roanoke County, Virginia, has been a leader in this field in government, especially with his Muni Gov 2.0 initiative. Bill is also a fellow blogger here on Digital Communities.

As the budgets of IT departments are cut, they no longer have the staff or resources to support applications, sometimes even mission critical ones. Many of us are therefore hosting new applications such as job application or payroll systems in the cloud. The City of Seattle will probably implement both applicant tracking systems (although with budget constraints, jobs are few and far between!) and customer relationship management systems "in the cloud". Besides ease of support, placing applications "in the cloud" also results in regular software upgrades and predictable costs.

Most MIX cities and counties are not cutting public safety or fire/emergency medical services departments. The City of Seattle, while cutting over 300 city employees in 2010, is preserving the number of firefighters and increasing the police department by 21 officers.

And support for public safety systems such as computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and records management is growing. A side effect of this growth is geo-location or automated-vehicle-location (AVL). Many local governments have implemented it for fire departments and it is seeing increasing use in police, transportation and utilities. AVL allows dispatch of the closest unit to a request for service, shortening response times. During disasters or major incidents, the incident commander and emergency operations center can quickly see and coordinate the deployment of units from many different disciplines to the scene. As one example, the City of Seattle just implemented a new CAD for Police which includes a mapping component showing not just unit locations, but active calls, waiting calls and completed requests.

Social media are seeing an explosion of use (duh!). Social media include blogging, online video (e.g. YouTube), twitter, mashups (data display on a map), and "friend" sites such as Facebook. Every MIX member is trying to figure out how to use these new technologies but at the same time comply with the web (pun intended) of laws for local government, including records retention and public disclosure while somehow preventing degeneration of public comment into the gutter often found in comments on newspaper articles. The City of Seattle just implementedd a series of social media policies, and is robustly using blogs and Twitter, as well as video and Facebook.

Again, Bill Greeves and the Muni Gov 2.0 crew are actively holding meetings and discussions in Second Life, another use of social media.

Next, I'll mention climate change. Some amount of debate continues to swirl around this topic - is global warming real or not? Is it caused by humans, or flatulating cows? This whole discussion is actually irrelevant. The fact is the public - and their elected officials - are demanding climate-friendly reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, which, by the way, also reduce our use of and dependence upon foreign oil. Mayor Greg Nickels of Seattle just had the 1000th city (Mesa, Arizona) sign the Mayors' climate protection agreement, an initiative he started in 2005. Bottom line: climate change is something IT departments need to address, too.

Then there is "green technology". I'm a notable skeptic that technology can ever been "green" (see my blog entry on "gray technology") although e-recycling programs like Total Reclaim in Seattle are recycling 99% of TVs and computer monitors. Every MIX member jurisdiction is working on green tech. Some of this is almost inadvertent, e.g. lengthening replacement cycles of desktop and server computers due to budget cuts. But other initiatives are quite proactive such as installing power-management software on desktop computers (e.g. from Verdiem), virtualization, and reducing the use of paper. In the future we will probably demand to know which manufacturers and vendors are kindest to the environment and use the lowest carbon emissions in production of their products.

As Rahm Emanuel has stated "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste". Those of us who are CIOs in local government are trying to balance reduced budgets, make staffing cuts and yet meet the increasing demands for technology by line departments in our governments. And we'll continue to share our good ideas through organizations such as MIX, publications like Government Technology and Public CIO magazine, and blogs such as these on Digital Communities.

We won't waste this crisis!


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DownTrends in City Tech

October 5, 2009 By Bill Schrier

Metropolitan Information Exchange MIX, the Metropolitan Information Exchange, recently concluded our annual conference in Albuquerque. MIX is a group of about 55 CIOs of major cities and counties. The conference is always good, not just for its presentations, but particularly for the hallway and brainstorming conversations about issues and trends in local government information technology. In this blog I'll highlight some of the 2009 "down" trends in local government, and in the next blog entry, later this week, I'll write about the "up" trends.

Some trends or strategic directions seemed to be common to all our governments. These included the need for executive support and leadership, the desire of our cities and counties to be "high tech" to attract tech businesses for economic development, and the need for a voter ROI or "voter return on investment".

The "voter ROI" is perhaps the most fascinating of these trends, although it is really not new - its always present in government. Voter ROI refers to the need for information technology projects to improve the operations of city government and to translate into votes at the ballot box for elected officials. Just as the ROI in a private business is measured by the profit of the company, the success of a government is measured by improved constituent/customer service, and THAT in turn is measured by the satisfaction in that government by voters who elect their mayors, county commissioners and city council members. Not every project has a voter ROI, but at least some of them must.

Executive support and leadership for IT projects is related to voter ROI. Strong Executive sponsorship is one of the two or three critical success factors in all IT projects everywhere, whether in government or private industry. As MIX members shared their success and failure project stories, we saw that a CFO who was interested and continually supporting a new financial management system, or a police chief supporting an upgraded radio system, or a City manager supporting a consolidation of IT staff, are the key factor in those projects' success.

Some trends are downswing trends - initiatives or functions receiving less emphasis and less funding. These include budgets, staffing of IT units, disaster recovery, "big" projects, travel and training. Every local government has been hit by declining city/county revenues and consequent need to conserve and reduce.

Last Friday I presented the budget of my department - the Department of Information Technology at the City of Seattle, to the Seattle City Council. The video of that experience is online here, and the budget is online here. We'll be reducing our $59 million budget by $3 million in 2010 and reducing our staffing by 12 full-time equivalent positions to 205 jobs.

Other local governments are experiencing similar difficulties. Steve Ferguson, the new CIO in San Jose, reports that City has experienced nine straight years of cuts and reductions, starting with the dot-com bust which hit Silicon Valley in 2001. Steve Reneker, CIO of Riverside reports his City cut its technology staffing from 72 to 55 people and scrapped a VoIP project. Joe Marcella in Las Vegas has reduced his IT shop from 100 staff to 72 since 2002, all by attrition, along with salary freezes for executives and most staff. Other MIX members have similar stories, especially in California and Arizona where government in general is in more dire circumstances.

Besides staff reductions, about half of the MIX members are freezing salaries (at least for management) and furloughing staff for 5 to 10 days a year, which is effectively a salary cut. Most of us are lengthening replacement cycles for desktop and server computers and network gear. We've renegotiated or are recompeting telecommunications and service contracts.

Particularly troubling are reductions in disaster planning. This is primarily due to simple lack of budget because disaster recovery is not an "immediate" need. Disaster planning is one of those extras you never need until, well, disaster strikes!

Budget crises are a logical time to consolidate IT in governments and save dollars through standardizing, and at least one of our cities, Tucson has done it and one large county is planning a consolidation.

But MIX members are also concerned about "de facto decentralization". As the resources and people of central IT departments are cut, service levels will drop, and the line departments (parks, utilities, police/sheriff, human services) tend to develop "shadow" technology support. Employees who should be doing policing or running community centers start doing technology support because they cannot get adequate support from the IT department. Individual employees or work units start buying their own cell phones or computers. Individually, such costs appear small, but those individual purchases don't take advantage of the bulk buying power of a whole government, or the efficiencies of standardization.

In my next column I'll talk about some of the technology trends which are on the "upswing" in local government, including public safety support, cloud computing, social media (blogging, twitter, facebook), the "greening of IT", and with a new emphasis on online services, accountability and transparency.

P.S. I also have the honor of being President of MIX in 2009 - 2010.


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