Small Cities, Big Advances

Desire is defeating tiny IT budgets as small jurisdictions lead their larger peers in developing and implementing technology.

by / October 1, 2001
Government is rarely considered bold when it comes to implementing new technologies. But some entities are more courageous than others. Governments that serve larger populations are typically the trailblazers, but some small jurisdictions are proving they can do more than keep up.

For example, San Carlos, Calif., home to 28,000 people, was among the first government jurisdictions with a Web site. Lenexa, Kan., was among the first small jurisdictions to offer a paperless City Council agenda for its 40,000 residents, a feat duplicated by many, including 11,500-resident South Sioux City, Neb.

While dollars may not be as readily available, many local governments with populations of less than 50,000 are devising creative strategies to get the technology they want.

Success in Maryland
Rockville and Gaithersburg -- two Maryland jurisdictions with populations just below 50,000 -- are taking significant IT strides.

Rockville created a strategic IT plan that includes a timeline requiring the city to constantly monitor how it is doing. Many of the plans recommendations are under way, and IT officials have support from staff, the mayor and the City Council -- all of whom played active roles in the plans development.

"Having the plan makes it easier to justify why we are taking on new hardware or software implementation projects, which is especially helpful during the annual budgeting process," said Michael Cannon, director of the citys Information and Technology Department. "We, like other IT departments, are impacted by the slowing economy. We may end up not implementing some of the recommendations as fast as originally planned, but I am very pleased with our progress since we published the plan [earlier this year]."

Among its many current projects, Rockville is implementing an institutional network (I-Net) to provide gigabit Ethernet links to nine city facilities, replacing its telephone system and considering voice over IP (VoIP) telephony. The city is expanding its GIS capabilities and extending Rockville-specific information to an intranet site for employees and to a Web site for the public. Rockville is also purchasing new help-desk software to enhance service delivery.

"Any jurisdiction - will benefit from the development and implementation of a strategic plan," said Julie Jacobson, assistant to Rockvilles city manager. "Having a plan helps users or customers with the ambiguity and changes associated with technology."

"In many respects, the world of IT is unchartered," Cannon and Jacobson noted in a white paper after the plan was published. "However, the IT strategic plan will serve as a roadmap to guide Rockville to a logical destination. Moreover, like a journey, the plan is mindful of detours and changes in itineraries."

Gaithersburg, just a few miles from Rockville, made its mark last year. The Gaithersburg Reporting and Database Environment (GRADE) program won top honors in 2000 in the SOLUTIONS Awards competition sponsored by Public Technology Inc.

GRADE allows city employees to merge any database with a framework for mapping and reporting. For example, through the membership system, staff can identify where seniors live to set up bus routes for the Senior Center. Staff can also use GRADE for internal matters. CityNet, the citys intranet, is a broadly used inquiry system that includes a city knowledge base, phone book inquiry, purchase order inquiry and budget inquiry.

"There are many approaches to being successful with - technology," said Barry Smith, Gaithersburgs IT director. "My marching orders have always been to leverage our technology investment, so sometimes I interpret that as an opportunity to use our creativity to invent a great solution.

"We went to great lengths because if the city was willing to make an investment in technology -- systems, staff, etc. -- it should get a clear return on that investment," Smith said. "Why invest money in systems and time in populating those systems with rich data if you arent going to cultivate this data into meaningful information?"

Smith and Cannon also have to deal with operating in an extremely tight labor market. Despite last years allure of dot-coms, Smith was able to keep most of his staff intact, giving them the opportunity to work on streaming video, Web personalization, online registration for parks and recreation activities and automated GIS applications.

Robert Giddens, director of Management Information Systems in Buffalo Grove, Ill., also understands staffing issues. He figures that technology can save the village of 43,300 residents money because he wont have to hire additional staff. The villages total budget of $5.6 million includes just $356,000 for IT. Thats $8.22 per resident per year.

"By looking at processes we are able to automate redundant tasks," Giddens said.

For example, purchase orders that previously passed through many hands and took three weeks to approve are now entered by one person and approved by the various departments electronically during a cycle that takes just days to complete. The same staff that previously typed purchase orders can now play customer service roles.

Similarly, city police reports were previously written in the field, retyped by administrative personnel and filed in the records department, which was only open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Officers working at midnight who needed a report would have to call someone in after-hours or wait until the next day. Now the reports are typed into a computer in the squad car and available online immediately.

Tough Tech Talk
Each day, more small local government jurisdictions are getting into the business of technology, and that interest is showing through on a larger scale. For example, the League of Minnesota Cities recently launched its Web for Cities project. King County, Wash., Councilmember Jane Hague, during her recently completed year as president of the National Association of Counties, made technology a major focus with an eye on helping small jurisdictions. Meanwhile, local government officials, especially those from smaller jurisdictions, are being asked to speak at more and more technology conferences about their successful IT projects.

Together they are proving that little cities can do big things too.