State and local government IT professionals in Massachusetts now have the benefit of InfoExchange, a forum they use to communicate and collaborate like never before.
InfoExchange, a collaborative effort between the commonwealth and its largest city, has allowed Massachusetts IT specialists to get acquainted via a statewide mailing list server and online seminars.
Boston CIO Craig Burlingame and Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn hope the system fosters innovation, helps IT officials implement best practices and allows collaborative projects that will better serve Massachusetts residents.
The InfoExchange seminars are held via Boston's distance learning portal, which was originally implemented for its own IT employees, but the city extended the portal's capabilities to IT employees and procurement officials statewide. Massachusetts has also made its list server technology available to InfoExchange members to stimulate more frequent communication.
The city has hosted several monthly online seminars that gave attendees an interactive way to familiarize themselves with common issues, their counterparts in other towns and state agencies, and statewide IT initiatives.
Seminar participants -- whose presence is noted on the right of the screen -- listen to presentations, and can use emoticons that appear next to their names to laugh, clap, disagree, request that the speaker go slower or faster, express confusion or understanding, or raise their hand to speak. When participants are allowed to speak, they can use a microphone to speak to the group and use tools that allow them write, type or point on an electronic "whiteboard." Participants can also send notes to other individuals in attendance or to the whole group.
Presenters can gather input from the group by pushing surveys out to participants.
Recordings of seminars are available for members to listen to after the events have passed. So for example, those who have not been members from the beginning can still listen to the first session, which contains an introduction to the portal and its tools.
So far, Burlingame, Quinn and other officials from the state and from Boston have led discussions on such things as procurement, network security, and using open source software and tools, and Quinn said he hopes cities and towns will get more involved.
"Our goal is to start having the cities -- some of the other cities and towns besides Boston -- actually come to the table and start talking and presenting some issues they're doing or that we collectively want to address," he said.
Big Benefits for Small Towns
Prior to becoming Boston's CIO, Burlingame worked in Massachusetts state-level IT and in a smaller Massachusetts town. Having seen IT in Massachusetts from several angles, he recognized the need for more communication, especially for small towns.
"They're the ones that stand to benefit the most," he said, noting that getting people from smaller towns to travel to attend meetings is sometimes difficult. "Little places that only have one or two IT people are very reluctant to say, 'Yeah, go to a meeting all day.'"
Michael Deltano, information systems manager from Easton, Mass., said he agrees. Aside from a programmer who works on the town's financial system, Deltano is Easton's only IT employee. Though he finds time to attend the Massachusetts Government Information Systems Association (MGISA) meetings, the main forum for IT employees in Massachusetts, he said many small towns can't attend.
"I'm sure there are a lot of towns that don't have IT managers or computer people as full-time employees, so it's tough to get them involved at all," he said, adding that of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts, approximately 40 to 50 regularly attend MGISA meetings. "That's not a lot of input from the other 300."
Aside from the MGISA meetings, Deltano said communication between state and local IT officials was virtually nonexistent.
"I don't think anything was communicated before," he said. "In five and a half years, I've seen very little come down from the state or from any other town."
Currently, Deltano said, Massachusetts towns manage their IT needs in myriad ways, some of which are better than others.
"Sometimes they're doing things so totally different that it's like, 'Why are they doing it that way? Is it just because they've been doing it that way for the last 10 years, and they don't want to change?'" he said. "There's a lot of good stuff out there, and I think if we pool our resources, we can get a lot more done."
If all the towns communicated regularly, Deltano said everyone could gain a lot. "For instance," he said, "I'm just a one-man show here, and if I try to do everything on my own, I'm a very busy person." But information from localities or state agencies with more resources would save time. "If they've already researched something and said, 'OK, we found out this is the best way to do this,' and I can just go someplace and find out what that is without having to spend hours researching it myself, it's going to save me time. It's going to save everybody time."
Quinn said the state could also learn from cities and towns. "There are some very interesting and innovative people working at the cities and towns," said Quinn. "We think we can benefit and learn from some of their technology deployments and innovative things they've done and adopt those at the state level."
Burlingame said InfoExchange membership, so far, is divided between approximately 50 percent state officials and 50 percent local officials, but some local administrators have said communication on the list server has been mostly one-way from the state.
"We haven't gotten as much out of the cities and towns as we would like at this point, but we're hoping to drive that communication so it's much more toward the commonwealth than it has been in the past," Quinn said. "It's early, you know. We've got the two biggies here sort of taking the lead -- the city of Boston and the commonwealth. As we go, we're going to continue the outreach, and hopefully we're going to see much more interaction from localities."
Collaboration Benefits Everyone
Opening communication between the state and its localities will not only make it easier to develop business solutions for services that currently require state and local governments to work together, Quinn said, but such collaboration among IT employees could also lead to more effective e-government in the future.
For example, Massachusetts' residents must often deal with more than just the Registry of Motor Vehicles to manage vehicle issues, he said. "An awful lot of what they have to have done before they go to the Registry needs to be done at the cities and towns."
But through collaboration, he said, citizens could make one stop to handle their vehicle needs, such as paying excise taxes or parking tickets. "We could collect that at the state level, then turn around and give it to the cities and towns directly, and save citizens the requirement of running around to various localities before they came to the commonwealth," he said. "There's a number of different initiatives we think could really help make things comfortable for somebody in the cities and towns."
Quinn and Burlingame also see opportunities for statewide collaboration in procurement. While the state already allows municipalities to use state contracts, Quinn said both state and local government could gain from maximizing their buying power for state contracts -- something Burlingame and Quinn were already trying to do.
In fact, InfoExchange was born from this effort -- the two were working together to be the "800-pound gorillas working with the vendor community," and wanted other localities in the discussion.
"Craig volunteered his distance learning network to be the vehicle in which we would do it," said Quinn.
Massachusetts and Boston are absorbing the costs associated with the technologies they contribute. "We're really using technology that both of our organizations owned, just for a different purpose," said Burlingame.
Quinn said this type of connection between state and local government IT officials would help in negotiating better IT purchases in the future. "I think the procurement agency, which is the OSD [Operational Services Division], tries to do a very good job of outreach, but I don't know that we always get to the technology people, and sometimes they have unique needs, or some needs that might help us define what the opportunity is on a go-forward basis," he said.
Quinn said he hoped InfoExchange would help create a single IT community across the commonwealth's state and local governments. "We think we can both benefit from that interaction."
Bringing the state's IT community together is one way IT professionals can use technology to help themselves, said Burlingame.
"We're so busy applying technology for the benefit of other people," he said, "we don't think about how we can use technology to transform the way we actually work."