More Cities Utilizing Technology

Survey results indicate cities are advancing with the times by incorporating technology into city operations.

by / May 31, 1998
The use of technology in local government has become increasingly mainstream over the last decade. According to a recent survey conducted by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and Public Technology, Inc. (PTI), 97 percent of U.S. cities use computers to support city operations. There has been only a slight increase in the number of cities using computers since the last survey conducted by these two organizations in 1993; however, the methods, types and uses of technology have changed quite a bit. Cities are expanding their uses of technology to help foster economic development, communicate better with their residents and increase the means by which services are delivered throughout their jurisdiction. The survey, conducted in the fall/ winter of 1997, was mailed to all cities with populations 2,500 and greater and to cities with populations under 2,500 that are recognized by ICMA as having the position of a professional manager. ICMA/ PTI received 3,673 responses -- a response rate of 49.7 percent.

The survey results serve as a snapshot into the everyday use of information technology in U.S. cities. What are the most common types of technology? How prevalent are cities on the Web? What type of technology applications are being used on a daily basis and in what manner?

The most popular computer systems used by the cities surveyed were:
* PCs (97.5 percent),
* Laptop PCs (79.6 percent),
* Workstations (78.4 percent), and
* Microcomputers (67 percent).

It is not surprising that PCs and laptop PCs are so popular in cities. Recent price drops in the computer industry and the increase in PC capability have made the personal computer a valuable work tool. Many cities are taking advantage of the laptop's mobility and installing them in police cars and fire engines to provide realtime access to criminal profiles, sketches and fire/crime site statistics.

Sixty-five percent of the responding municipalities indicated they budgeted under $50,000 for IT expenditures for fiscal-year 1998. The majority of jurisdictions with populations 250,000 and greater budgeted for more than $150,000. Sixty-six percent of municipalities will keep their data processing budget the same for fiscal-year 1999, with only 5.2 percent of responding cities expecting an increase in the budget, and 4 percent expecting a significant decrease in IT expenditures. Of those expecting a decrease, 64.3 percent responded that the prospect of contracting out data-processing services is very unlikely during the next fiscal year.

Management Policy and Computer Use

The survey results indicate that the key decision-maker for IT acquisition in cities varies based on a jurisdiction's size. Overall survey results indicate that decision-makers fall into the following rank:

* Manager/CAO (55.1 percent),
* Department heads (44.8 percent),
* Council members (33.9 percent), and
* IS/DP directors (25.7 percent).

A closer look at the results show that, the larger the population, the more frequently the IS/DP director is the decision-maker in the acquisition process as opposed to the manager/CAO. At least 41 percent of municipalities with populations 50,000 and greater give the IS/DP director the responsibility for making IT decisions. This trend is not surprising, as many smaller jurisdictions not only lack the IS/DP director position, but many do not have data processing staff. The survey results indicate that larger jurisdictions -- populations greater than 50,000 -- were more likely to have their jurisdiction's data processing structure as an independent department, while smaller jurisdictions tend to merge those responsibilities with part of the city administration.

As in many work environments, the most frequent users of computers are administrative staff, such as administrative assistants, secretaries and clerks (94.3 percent). The most significant increase in computer use for citywide staff since the 1993 survey was among department heads. In 1993, only 11 percent of department heads used computers; in 1997, the number climbed to 88.5 percent. The city manager/CAO position also saw an increase in computer use, albeit not as drastic, with 76.4 percent of managers using computers as compared to 57 percent of users in 1993. These results indicate that computers are more common in the city workplace among higher-level positions of staff.

While the numbers for who uses technology has changed drastically over the last four years, the problems that occur due to technology have remained the same. In 1993, personnel training and underutilization of computer capacity were cited as the greatest technology problems encountered by municipalities. Four years later, even with the advance of technology, the same problems remain. Personnel training (60.1 percent), underutilization of computer capacity (48.3 percent), resistance to organizational change (40.2 percent) and resistance to use (39.2 percent) were the top four problems encountered by cities regarding computer use.

Internet Use and Online Communication

Internet use is still relatively new to the majority of cities across the country. While larger jurisdictions have ways and means to "get connected," smaller jurisdictions, especially those in rural areas, have yet to come online. This is most evident when dealing with the Internet and the establishment of Web sites. Twenty-six percent of cities responded that they did not have Internet e-mail. Ninety-four percent of those respondents have a population under 25,000. Forty-eight percent of all cities responding indicated that 1 percent to 10 percent of their employees had Internet e-mail, while only 5.4 percent have more than 70 percent of employees on Internet e-mail.

Almost 40 percent of cities have a local-government Web site separate from any sites maintained by the chamber of commerce or department of tourism. Not surprisingly, the highest concentration of Web sites occurs in cities with large populations, as 100 percent of responding cities with populations over 1,000,000 have Web sites. Encouragingly, 22 percent of municipalities with populations under 2,500 have Web sites.

The primary purpose of these Web sites is for:
* Information dissemination (87.7 percent),
* Resident education/infor - mation (73.7 percent), and
* Economic development (45.1 percent).

In order to further enhance Web sites, local governments offer a variety of services on their sites, including council meeting information, e-mail access to local government staff, parks and recreation information, and local government employment information. Many local governments count on the Web to enhance community participation and economic development within their community. The Web, in many cases, allows for realtime access to city services, such as tax/bill payment information and property assessment.

Long Range IT Planning and Y2K

Two of the most disturbing survey results were that 71.2 percent of cities did not have a long-range IT plan, and 55 percent of respondents claimed their local government computers would not be affected by the year-2000 problem.

Although long-range planning is more important in larger jurisdictions with more computers, smaller cities that wish to enhance services by using technology can benefit from long-range planning. In an interesting aside, 24 percent of the cities that do not have long-range planning consider their jurisdictions to be very progressive from a technology prospective; 40 percent consider themselves moderately progressive.

The survey specifically questioned whether local government computers would be affected by the Y2K problem; it is a cause for concern that such a large amount of municipalities indicate they won't be affected by the Y2K bug. Keeping in mind that year-2000 compliant computers have been on the market for only a few years, and that the majority of responding cities believe the average useful life of a computer is more than four years, it is highly probable that many cities have noncompliant computers.

Many cities that have realized they will be affected by the computer "glitch" are trying to solve the problem by:

* Working with an outside vendor (32.5 percent),
* Using in-house staff (28 percent), and
* Working with a consultant (24.7 percent).

Twenty-four percent of cities that responded they would be affected by the year-2000 problem have not begun to solve the problem yet. Lack of financial resources, staff and awareness of the problem may be a few reasons why these local governments have not yet attempted to solve this labor-intensive problem.

Applications of Technology

The geographical information system (GIS) was the most popular technology application used in municipal government. Although GIS is still one of the most frequently used applications -- 51.4 percent of cities responded that they are currently using GIS -- other methods of technology are becoming popular as well. For example, wireless service (87.3 percent), including mobile radios and cellular phones, was the application most frequently chosen by respondents this year. Fax back/reply service (55.2 percent) and fiber optics (54.5 percent) are also technologies becoming more popular. All of these technologies can help cities deliver goods and services more effectively and efficiently to residents.

Video arraignment, which frees up courtrooms for trials and eliminates the security risks of taking prisoners out of jail, is another technology application increasing in popularity. Thirty-eight percent of cities, including Houston, Texas, are now taking advantage of video arraignment. In Houston, realtime, full-motion color video, and full-duplex audio with echo/feedback elimination, are used to remotely arraign prisoners.

Touch-screen kiosks, used by 15.3 percent of cities, have been a success in Springfield, Mo. The kiosks, which contain an interactive program that provides users with material on recycling to election information, are located in public places throughout the city. In the first two quarters of 1997, the kiosks had nearly 8,000 users, and the cost savings have been tremendous.

As U.S. cities aim to provide better service to their residents in a more timely manner, they have begun to use technology in a more effective way. The use of technology by city staff is becoming more common, as is the use of technology applications to deliver goods and services throughout communities. What does the future hold for local governments in relation to technology? "Technology will be embedded in every service local government provides. Technology will not be thought of as a separate piece, but an important part of the business process," said Dinah Neff, chief information officer of Bellevue, Wash.

ICMA is the professional and educational organization of more than 8,200 appointed administrators and assistant administrators serving cities, counties, other local governments and regional entities around the world. PTI is the nonprofit technology organization of ICMA, the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties. PTI's mission is to bring technology to local and state governments.
Austin's Connection

For the past decade, leaders in business, government and academia in Austin, Texas, have collaborated to implement a vision of the city's future that embraces science and technology advances. To a great extent, the city has staked its future success in technology. As a result, Austin has emerged as a thriving high-tech center characterized by high energy, a collaborative spirit and high expectations of the city government's continuing leadership.

In late 1994, as the Internet and World Wide Web worked their way into the mainstream vocabulary, City Manager Jesus Garza asked, "Why don't we put the city online to allow everyone direct, 24-hour access to information and services?"

Simultaneously, a team of employees from business and technology disciplines proposed a three-pronged strategy for using the Internet to improve service and communication:

* Content and services -- Put useful information and, ultimately, transactions on the Web. Local and global customers who use city services are the primary

* Employee access -- Give all city employees the tools and training they need to serve via the Internet and to continually increase the online offerings.

* Public access -- Collaborate with business and public partners, such as the Austin Free-Net, Metropolitan Austin Interactive Network, the University of Texas, schools and governments to ensure everyone in Austin has access to online opportunities.

Thus was born the Austin City Connection, a commitment to use Internet technologies to connect
people with useful information, services and people. The next step was to walk the talk online.

In January 1995, the city manager challenged a team of 12 employees with technical and business expertise to build a Web site in 30 days. Residents and fellow employees jumped in to help. At a Feb. 21, 1995, community celebration, the Austin City Connection went live on the Web, with over 300 files of information as basic as the city charter and weekly council agenda and as comprehensive as a database of community services for youth, weekly job openings and the purchasing office's bidding opportunities list.

Over time, usage has greatly increased, going from an average of 14,000 files a week in February 1995, to an average of 75,000 files a week in June 1997. Content has grown from 300 to 2,000-plus files/databases maintained by city employees. A graphical interface to the public-library catalog went online in April 1997, due, in part, to an MCI grant. Interactive services continue to grow with the addition of the online traffic suggestion/complaints form, neighborhood association database and live election results in spring 1997.

In response to customer requests, the Austin City Connection now offers a text-only version of every page, allowing users with text-only browsers or visually impaired users to navigate the site easily. Over 2,000 of 8,000 city employees have access to Internet e-mail and the Web. More are coming online daily and learn to add information to the Connection via a Web-based publishing system developed by employees for employees.

For more information, contact Chris Kelley, webmaster, Austin City Connection, 625 East 10th St., 9th floor, Austin, Texas 78701. Call 512/499-6550. Fax: 512/499-2091.

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