Winning top honors in the Center for Digital Government's 2003 Digital Cities Survey is a little like opening the new outdoor ice skating rink in Fort Wayne, Ind.'s Headwaters Park.
At least that's what Fort Wayne Mayor Graham Richard thinks.
"There aren't many cities in this immediate area with this kind of outdoor rink," Richard said. "It's been a great boost to what we're trying to do with our downtown wintertime activities."
In the same way, Richard said emerging as the No. 1 digital city with a population between 125,000 and 249,999 has also been a great boost for Fort Wayne.
"We can't bring the mountains or the sunny seashore to Fort Wayne, but I think we can take the assets we have -- and we have a wonderful community -- and create a competitive edge," Richard explained. "I think this award shows we are trying to be as effective as possible in delivering services and providing for businesses through the use of technology -- that we're doing things that make us a world-class competitor as a community, as a city."
A dedication to using technology in innovative ways is the common denominator among all of the 2003 Digital Cities winners. Each year, the Center for Digital Government's Digital Cities Survey examines and assesses how city governments are progressing in their use of technology to streamline operations and deliver quality services to their citizens.
Officials respond to a set of 16 questions, rank their jurisdictions on a four-point scale, and provide Web site addresses and background data for final verification and validation.
This year, mayors, city managers and CIOs in more than 300 cities throughout the United States were invited to participate in the survey, which was underwritten by Microsoft. Participants were grouped into categories for populations of 250,000 or more, 125,000 to 249,000 and 75,000 to 124,999.
Two years ago, Fort Wayne ranked 10th on the survey, while last year it finished in third place. The city's steady rise in the survey and this year's first place status comes as no surprise to Richard.
"I think this shows that we set goals, and we work toward them," he said. "We continually work on doing things that are unique and distinctive in terms of providing better services to our citizens."
Big Time IT
Officials in Tampa, Fla., are also working hard to use innovative technologies to benefit the public. For the second year in a row, Tampa took top honors in the largest city category.
"We leverage the use of technology with goals of increased convenience, greater access to information and reduced government costs on individual transactions," said Steve Cantler, Information Technologies Services project leader for Tampa.
Providing more accessible and convenient services are at the heart of what drives cities to create such functional Web sites. But front-runners in the 2003 Digital Cities survey provide much more than one-stop bill payment or service request shopping.
All top-10 finishers -- such as Colorado Springs (sixth place in 2002) and Los Angeles (new to the survey), which tied for second place -- have Web sites that offer health and safety information; provide streaming video of city meetings; link users to various city recreation, business and service resources; and present a way for citizens to interact with community leaders and department personnel. The survey also gauged progress on internal systems that strengthen government efficiency and improve public safety.
Tampa's continuing Web improvements are typical of cities ranked at the top of this year's survey.
"In 2003, TampaGov.net expanded its citizen-centric emphasis with a focus on transaction-based services," Cantler said. "Using TampaGov, citizens obtain a wide variety of services. Citizens can track their communication to city officials and provide follow-up information at their convenience."
Numbers may tell the story best. Cantler reported that TampaGov receives more than 1 million page requests every month, and collected more than $2 million in revenue.
Moving Where IT Is
The numbers aren't quite as high, but the spirit is the same in Roanoke, Va., which placed among cities with a population between 75,000 and 124,999.
"We get dozens of e-mails every day from people thanking us or telling us what a great job we're doing with the Web site," said Kathy Cox, technology planning administrator of Roanoke.
"I've gotten a few e-mails from people who said they're proud to live here because of our GIS Web site. Some even said they'd actually moved here because they were influenced so much by the functionality and the information that they just wanted to be a part of the community," added Roy Mentkow, Roanoke's IT director. "Those made me feel really good."
Roanoke's IT department is accustomed to those kinds of good feelings, having placed first in the Digital Cities Survey for three years in a row and receiving, "strong support from our city manager, our City Council and from our user community," Mentkow said.
Strong support from city officials and the community is something all the survey's high-ranking cities enjoy.
Richard even credits his recent re-election, at least in some part, to Fort Wayne's dedication to using technology to benefit citizens. Richard was elected to his first term following a recount that declared him winner by a mere 129 votes. Last year, he retained his mayorship handily by a margin of nearly 8,000 votes.
"I think what boosted my capability to receive that sort of voter mandate was the cross-party appeal of the way we are getting results -- and the technology portion of that is very important," said Richard. "The average citizen might not be able to describe the technology, they just know that our services are better."
For most cities taking part in the 2003 Digital Cities Survey, local technological advances are happening in more places than just their digital domain.
In Fort Wayne, officials have implemented a range of technological innovations that include, among other things, a new broadband system that allows police officers to use in-vehicle computer equipment wirelessly and securely, and automated meter reading.
Similarly Roanoke boasts free downtown wireless service, and recently partnered with their local convention and visitors bureau to deploy several touchscreen kiosks in the area that provide a plethora of useful information, such as area dining and hotel choices, entertainment opportunities, weather, and the location of government services.
"Nearly every city government that participated in the survey made great progress in improving their business functions with customers and increasing their overall service delivery to citizens -- all with the support of technology," said Cathilea Robinett, executive director of the Center for Digital Government.
In the end, improving services to citizens is the true purpose and benefit of the burgeoning digital cities movement.
"The technology itself is great for those who love technology," said Richard. "But it really only matters if you're making someone's life better in our city. And that's what we keep trying to do."