When Philadelphia Councilman Brian O'Neill ended his one-year term as president of the National League of Cities (NLC) last December, it was only fitting that the theme of the event was a technology-oriented "future.nlc.kc."
After all, O'Neill's theme while he was among the NLC leadership was harnessing information technology. But O'Neill took the theme a step further, looking at policy surrounding local government's IT use.
"I always see government -- and, particularly, local government, since that's what I'm involved in -- as being several years behind the private sector in almost everything. I saw this topic as not only being very important, but one where we couldn't afford to be in our usual lag mode behind the private sector," O'Neill said. "It's just too critical that we keep up or at least close the time gap that is usually there.
"I also saw that most of our elected officials were from the pre-computer generations, not very familiar with technology and wanting to push it off to staff or consultants. What concerned me was that the policy has to be driven by the elected leaders of a city," he said. "They have to understand the technology and what it can do for them, or not do for them in different situations, before they can make those kind of decisions."
Formulating policy must come from the leadership, he said, not from appointed personnel who might feel uncomfortable in this area. "A lot of the stress was on getting [elected officials] familiar with it, not necessarily knowing how the computer runs but knowing what it can do for you. So it was where the real focus came in: trying to make local government elected leaders comfortable and familiar with developing policies around technology."
The president selects the NLC's annual theme, and O'Neill's choice marked a drastic change from previous years. The year prior to O'Neill's stint as president featured a theme of public safety, so he focused on how technology could make a difference in that arena. South Bay, Fla., Mayor Clarence Anthony, who succeeded O'Neill as NLC president had a theme of building a nation of communities and how workforce training on computers and technology is critical to the success of cities.
Anthony admitted shortly after becoming president that following O'Neill was a difficult task, and not just because South Bay has about 4,300 residents, and mega-city Philadelphia has more than 1.5 million inhabitants. After all, the Philadelphia official visited 38 of the 49 state associations during his tenure among the leadership. But Anthony was just as quick to note that O'Neill's focus on technology in 1998 couldn't be ignored in 1999, so he spent much of his term preaching technological diligence, notably in terms of remediating Y2K.
"I felt that we were tackling that issue for local government leaders at just the right time," O'Neill said, adding that his focus wasn't directed at the big cities with large budgets, but rather at a majority of the NLC's members -- smaller jurisdictions that don't necessarily have enough dollars to house an entire technology department. "It was just trying to get them to focus and understand that it can't wait until tomorrow."
That sentiment is shared by many, including Donald Borut, the NLC's executive director. "He made this a primary agenda item for our organization," Borut said of O'Neill.
"What concerned me was that the policy has to be driven by the elected leaders of a city. They have to understand the technology and what it can do for them, or not do for them in different situations, before they can make those kind of decisions." -- Philadelphia Councilman Brian O'Neill
The idea of using technology in public safety had a special meaning for O'Neill in 1998. Not only