Economic Conditions and Changing Technology Challenge Local Government (Opinion)

Technology organizations must balance expectations and resources to be successful.

by / April 18, 2011

I have always thought that one of the most interesting sports to watch is the women’s gymnastics balance beam competition. I simply don’t know how those women twist and fly like they do, all while staying centered on an apparatus that’s 16 feet long and 4 inches wide. Perhaps it’s because at 6 feet 5 inches tall and 250 pounds, I’m simply not built for optimum balance beam success.  

The importance of being built for success got me thinking about how, because of economic conditions and changing technology, government IT officials are trying to navigate a balance beam world with an information and communication technology (ICT) organization that isn’t built for optimum success.  

For example, I recently conducted an organizational assessment for a city that isn’t satisfied with its current ICT structure and department. What I found after talking with elected and senior appointed officials, department directors and senior managers within the ICT organization didn’t surprise me. Expectations and resources are out of balance.  

Like many, the department endured successive years of staff and funding reductions. The department lost some people it needed and kept some people whose skills are dated. As a result, ICT staffers have fallen back, circled the wagons, and focused on the projects they view as critical and fundamental. They’re maintaining the ERP system, focusing on security, applying routine patches and upgrades to existing systems, and trying to respond to help-desk trouble tickets as quickly as possible. All of which are good, important things.  

However, their elected and appointed officials see very little of that and want their city government to be perceived by the public as a leader in ICT use. They want to take advantage of the opportunities made possible by mobility, collaboration tools and leveraging Web 2.0 applications that are available to their employees at home but not on the job. They wonder, “Why isn’t that happening here?” It’s an important question.  

When you add the fundamental changes taking place in ICT — as we move closer to our lives being significantly influenced by an Internet of things driven by machine-to-machine wireless connections — it’s easy to anticipate the pressure increasing on local government to change how services are delivered to communities. Video security systems, fleet management, smart meters, health-care devices and services, and navigation aids and broadband in our personal vehicles are just some examples of things that will change the way we live and what we expect.  

So it becomes a question of balance. How do you balance increasing public and political expectations with the need to continue the behind-the-scenes work of enterprise ICT management during a time when available human and financial resources are decreasing?  

Based on my work with cities and counties of all sizes across the country, I believe the answer is open, regular and honest communication. I know this can sometimes be difficult, especially if the ICT function doesn’t report directly to or regularly meet with senior elected and appointed officials. However, without a shared understanding of priorities, opportunities, demands and constraints — and a common plan for addressing them — the result is almost always frustration and disappointment for everyone.  

Every jurisdiction, large and small, that did well in the 2010 Center for Digital Government’s Digital Cities or Digital Counties surveys credited a well understood and shared enterprise view of ICT for their success. Sometimes that comes from a formal and documented strategic ICT plan — and sometimes it simply comes from a common understanding of priorities and constraints. Either way, it comes from a lot of conversation.  

If you believe your ICT department “just doesn’t get it” or that your manager’s office or elected leaders “don’t have a clue how much you are doing” with the few resources you have available, it is time you get together and talk before someone falls off the beam and gets hurt. That part is never much fun to watch.

Todd Sander Executive Director, Center for Digital Government

Todd Sander is Executive Director of the Center for Digital Government, and is responsible for driving the strategic direction and development of the Center's programs and for providing thought leadership and hands-on expertise in expanding the Center’s services to both government and industry.