Big Thoughts, General Technology, Government

Are Cities Prepared To Get Serious About Technology?

This post first appeared on September 13, 2012 on EfficientGov as part of a guest column called Reichental’s Digital City.

Although attribution remains contested, Einstein apparently said that insanity is, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Regardless of who said it (and I’d never miss an opportunity to reference Einstein in my writings), the provisioning of technology in a city context today often has the hallmarks of insanity. With a painful consistency of missed project deadlines, cost overruns, and disappointing results, why is city technology still approached and delivered time and again in a manner that almost assures failure?

It’s a tough and sobering question to ask and a difficult one to solve too. It means looking deeply at leadership, at our tolerance for risk, and most of all—in my opinion—at a government’s capacity for innovation and internal, cultural reinvention.

As a traditional laggard in our economy and yet an obvious mechanism for helping to solve many of the most intractable issues that cities face, the delivery of municipal technology is postured perfectly for transformational opportunity. It’s time for city leaders to face this head-on.

It’s clear that many leaders are beginning to see the opportunity. There are now many openings for city chief information officers (CIOs), a great sign that there is recognition of the strategic value of technology in delivering government. I’d also like to see more of the larger cities begin to think about hiring chief technology officers (CTOs) too. Why? With a greater focus on community-facing automation, cities are increasingly in the business of delivering technology-driven products and services.

Assuming that the right candidates are being hired and positioned for success, these cities are taking one of the right first steps. But it’s only a start.

Regardless of whether new technology leadership is installed or existing management is given a new mandate, the sobering reality is that the entire value-chain for technology enablement must be redefined. This is because, for decades, the model hasn’t changed. It’s stuck in an old world of poor incentives and traditional approaches to technology that have been superseded by new, innovative models. These are models that are being embraced in the private sector and other models for innovation that are unique to the distinctive needs of the public sector.

Why Change Now?

Simply put: because it has too! Leaders in the private sector have embraced technology for moving their organizations forward. No longer relegated to a supporting role, the CIO is at the leadership table helping to develop and grow businesses by enabling new products and services. This is because marketplace forces require a new approach. Stand still and you face being trampled on by the competition.

Similarly, cities face enormous market changes—for example: flat or declining revenue sources and increasing expenses. Stand still and a city will face compounding and devastating consequences. Thus, if city leaders still believe that technology is simply for providing email and a website (of course exaggerated to make my point), they are missing the clear opportunity for technology to reinvent the very manner in which city government is delivered.

Let me be fair though. Across our country there are great examples of cities doing amazing things with technology. They are pushing the boundaries of what is possible. It’s impressive and refreshing. Sadly, these cities still represent a minority. My call to action is for the thousands of other cities still nervously eyeing the future and failing to act.

Where Do You Start?

In my view, it always starts with recognition of the problem. If your city technology continues to fall below expectations, costs too much money to maintain, and isn’t able to keep up with the actual needs of the city, then you have an environment that is ready for reinvention.

Next, you need to take a look at leadership. Is your technology leader, CIO or IT director, skilled and empowered to shift the existing struggling paradigm? Do they have what it takes to change the game and embrace innovation such as that which is happening in the private sector?

Recognition of the problem and ensuring you have the right leadership are two important starting points. Unfortunately that’s when the hard work starts.

In America we don’t have a history of letting big problems deter our resolve to find solutions. On the contrary, it’s in our DNA to face these problems head on. Our cities are entering a crisis period—many are already there—and these problems need solutions. While these seemingly intractable challenges will take multidimensional approaches to solve, I’ll bet technology will be a significant contributor.

Now that we have a context for the problem and the opportunity, the important work of identifying and executing many of the new ways of delivering government technology must begin. In the coming weeks and months, I will be sharing with EfficientGov readers our experiences in Palo Alto, including lessons from the field, innovations being tested around the country, and simple steps that your city can take to transform itself into a “digital city.”

We can’t keep doing city technology the same way. That would be insane.

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