From Free to Flashy, Tech Solutions for Local Government

Posted on December 17, 2014

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From Free to Flashy, Tech Solutions for Local Government

by Kent Wyatt – LinkedIn and Twitter

You’ve read local government’s wish list for technology solutions, now read a much shorter list — tech solutions have been implemented by local government.

ELGL asked, “What, if any, issues has your organization addressed in the past with technology?”

Responses ranged from “SpacePlace – a Facebook that NOBODY uses” to “Durham’s Neighborhood Compass designed to help users identify areas of need and opportunity in their neighborhoods.”

Of the solutions implemented, the area of finance was the big winner. New technologies have improved fiscal accounting systems, performance management, dashboards, contract monitoring, and grant management.

Managers Want to Know About Tech Solutions

Survey findings indicated that local government managers recognize the value of technology solutions but lack knowledge of existing solutions. A local government manager noted,

“I frankly don’t know what technological opportunities exist.  Not all technology is helpful, but I would welcome a conversation on this topic.”

Tech companies may need to reconsider how they are communicating with local government professionals. Having a booth at a conference is helpful (especially the sponsorship dollars) but conference attendees walking a mile out of their way to avoid a sales pitch is not helpful. That said, professional associations need to do their part by integrating vendors into their events as opposed to segregating them to (a sad, cold) room by themselves.

download (1)One way to learn more about technology is good ol’ fashioned reading. Government Technology has the latest news on solutions for state and local government. The Code for America blog highlights their work on building open source technology. And, if you’ve recently climbed out of a dark hole and don’t have a LinkedIn account, LinkedIn is an excellent resource for keeping track of tech solutions across the globe.

Success Depends on Early Victories

Long-term success with technology endeavors relies on building early momentum through solving your “low-hanging fruit” issues. For some organizations, this has meant:

  • Upgrading to iPhones for cell phones used by city employees. (It’s true, the Blackberry is no longer the answer. So sad.)download (5)
  • Improving internal security on city computers.
  • Updated the operation systems.
  • Developing a more electronic data management system.
  • Recording city meetings and then uploading onto YouTube.
  • Creating an intranet opened up communication across geographically isolated employees who now can work collaboratively to solve organizational and public challenges in tandem.
  • Allowing for online bill pay.

Whether these fit your definition of low hanging fruit depends on your organization, regardless, the point is to find early successes that will convince the nay-sayers.

Public Involvement Is Aided, Not Solved, By Tech

mindmixer-webinarCities and counties are in a never-ending search for the perfect public involvement process. Citizen engagement has been made easier by companies such as Grancius and MindMixer, but it can’t force citizens to answer another (long-winded, robotic-sounding) survey.

Here’s the experience of one local government manager,

“We’ve tried to obtain public input on key projects and planning processes using online platforms. This has been very lackluster, I suspect it has to do with our methods of sharing and engagement. We seem perplexed to find that people don’t actually want to take a survey. We have big expensive and flashy methods to add input online but few partake.”

Your public outreach efforts can be aided by new tools and through the use of social media. However, face-to-face contact with citizens will never be replaced by the newest app or social media site.

Cost Is a Cop-out 

Screenshot-2014-11-25-20.15.53Look no further than the City of Ferndale, WA for a model of implementing technology on a limited budget. The City revamped its website using an open source solution on GovPress. Sam Taylor and Luke Fernwell shared the success story in a recent ELGL article and webinar. The new website led to a dramatic increase in website traffic.

Another city looked for a low cost option through the help of their local university. The city’s solid waste division worked with a graduate student from a nearby university to design a system that can plot and track its existing garbage collection routes. The goal of using the software was to determine how efficient the current system is and whether the department can save money by combining all collections into a single route system.

CivicAppsAnother small city manager stated, “In small cities, we tend not to be on the cutting edge; however, technology is more affordable now and small cities should be taking more advantage of such advances.”

Proving that point, several years ago, CivicApps was created in the Portland region. CivicApps is free and seeks to source, profile, and accelerate innovative ideas using Web and mobile technologies.

Transportation Made Easier

phonesIt is easier to get around in cities that have embraced technology solutions. For example, TriMet, the regional transportation agency in Portland, created a mobile app for purchasing transit tickets. The agency has also opened bus data to Google to allow for functionally of transit on Google Maps.

Problems surrounding parking have being addressed in real time by a variety of e-commerce apps designed to let people take care of business from their mobile device. A number of cities have created apps that show where there are available parking spaces.

Not to be overlooked, the advent of the remote meter readers makes for fewer city vehicles to add to road congestion.

Solutions Can Lead to Problems

Local governments embracing technology solutions were quick to note that solutions are not perfect.

imagesOne city had installed cameras to provide additional security in their parks and downtown plaza. They were then faced with connecting the cameras to fiber which would enable real time monitoring.

Some solutions address part of a need while leaving a lingering need. For example, a city noted that they have an outward facing dashboard which does not address internal needs.

The key question in implementing any solution in government is whether the organization is better now than it was before the change.

Note: Complete results of the survey will be made available to ELGL members.

Supplemental Reading

Relive the Code for America Webinar

Knope of the Week: Garrett Jacobs, Code for America

Powering Open Data with Socrata

Top 10 Mobile Trends for Law Enforcement

Pittsburgh Public Data Center Work Underway with Help from Foundation’s $1.8M

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