Tackling Mistrust with Technology

Local governments hope technology can help change attitudes while improving services.

by / September 30, 1997 0
America's cities and counties have always been government's frontline -- face to face with citizens. Twenty-five years ago -- when 75 percent of the public said they had confidence and trust in government -- that contact was fairly positive. Today, however, things have changed.


While state and local government still fares better than Washington, D.C., a 1994 poll showed that only about 30 percent of the public trusted state and local government.

Some analysts believe that citizen mistrust of government regularly rises and falls, and is nothing to worry about. Others fear today's attitudes are potentially more harmful. Speaking at a 1996 symposium, Joseph Nye, dean for the Kennedy School of Government, said, "The worry is that low trust may tend to be cumulative. If it becomes the conventional wisdom that government can't do anything right, and that is repeated time and again by politicians and the press, people begin to believe it. And that may reduce the effectiveness of government, which in turn will lead to lower and lower trust."

And trust affects support. "If people believe that government should not be trusted, then they won't provide the resources," explained Nye. "And if they don't provide the resources, then government can't perform. And if government can't perform, then people will become more dissatisfied and more distrustful of it."

It is in America's communities that citizens are most vocal about the shortcomings of government and more likely to withdraw support for the resources cities and counties need to operate. While most cities and counties struggle to cope with the downward spiral of citizen support, a few local governments are experimenting with ways to become more responsive through innovative technology and management techniques.

Ask local government about the biggest problems they face, and most don't mention crime, economic development or poverty. Instead, they talk about the need to operate more effectively, to be more responsive to citizens' needs and to cut costs. "That kind of two-sided pressure -- greater effectiveness at reduced cost -- is an enormous challenge to local government professionals," said Michael Humphrey, business director for telecommunications and information technology at Public Technology Inc. (PTI).

Great Expectations

Nowhere is that challenge more evident than in the management of information technology. According to Humphrey, appointed and elected local government leaders increasingly expect technology to help solve their problems. "Unfortunately, many of these officials have unrealistic expectations of what technology can do for them," he pointed out. That, in turn, has raised a host of concerns for IT managers who must somehow deal with these great expectations.

"As nation states weaken, the world's great urban regions -- "citistates" -- are gaining prominence as the centers for the activity that counts most -- economic. They're the natural environmental basins, the true labor markets, the way the world is organized."


To help local governments get a better handle on these issues, PTI recently convened a task force consisting of local jurisdictions from around the country. They ranged from leading government innovators, such as Phoenix and Montgomery County, Md., to lesser-known jurisdictions, such as Greensboro, N.C., and Bellevue, Wash. They discovered that local governments hope to increase their use of technology to build more effective services that are responsive to citizens' needs, while holding down costs. But they are struggling with some key management issues in turning their IT goals into reality.

Humphrey singled out geographic information systems (GIS), robust networking and Internet/intranet applications as technologies that local governments view as crucial to improving service delivery and lowering the cost of government operations. "Local officials now view GIS as part of their information infrastructure, as well as a management tool for analysis and decision support," he said. Other technologies that merit scrutiny are client/server and electronic commerce.

Michael Di Paolo, information systems and services director for Fort Worth, Texas, would agree to that list of government problems, with some alterations. Citizen mistrust of government may have led local leaders to push for greater efficiency, "but that's not good enough," said Di Paolo, "because we are dealing with people who are used to corporations that are efficient all the time. It doesn't matter how efficient we are -- if we aren't responsive, we look bad."

To improve responsiveness, Fort Worth is automating its field workers. Already, the city police have automation in their cruisers. Now automation is being added to neighborhood police districts, fire stations and EMS units. Building inspectors, code enforcement officers and other field workers have, or will soon have, wireless computing capabilities.

You can't improve effectiveness or cut costs if workers in one department don't know what workers in another department are doing, argued Di Paolo. "Our workers need to know what services have or have not been delivered. That's not easy, if you're a government, such as Fort Worth, that's in charge of 25 separate businesses."

Information integration is the key, according to Di Paolo, so the city is building a data warehouse. Right now, a DB2 database is under construction to house information from the courts and police reports. Later, data from other departments will be incorporated.

Di Paolo agrees that GIS is becoming a key tool in making information available throughout city government. But he feels that the Internet will play less of a role in the near future because "a very large proportion of our population does not have access to the Internet."

In fact, approximately 37 percent of the people who live in Fort Worth at or below the poverty line don't even have a telephone. "There's some great technologies out there," Di Paolo said, "but the problem is that they are limited to a small proportion of the population who can take advantage of it." The answer lies in striking a balance between technological and nontechnological solutions to service delivery. In local government, Di Paolo pointed out, there are always going to be people who want to walk in and pay a water bill with cash because they don't have a bank account.

Management Puzzle

IT managers voiced a number of concerns about nontechnical issues threatening their deployment of information technology at the local level. The PTI task force zeroed in on problems with personnel recruitment, organizational realignment, training, budgeting and IT management as it relates to government policy.

A breakdown in communications is often cited as the chief reason IT management has trouble meshing technology with government policy. Part of the problem was the backroom role of IT. In the past, local government IT directors were hired for their expertise in overseeing mainframe applications, not for their strategic vision. That's beginning to change, said Humphrey, pointing to the rise in the number of local government CIOs and similar positions. "If IT is going to be the way to achieve efficiencies, then cities and counties need someone who can articulate the situation," he explained.

Di Paolo doesn't hold a CIO position in Fort Worth, but on an informal basis, it comes close. "I'm responsible for assembling the city's technology strategy, not the bits and bytes," he explained, adding that he has good access to Robert Terrell, Fort Worth's city manager.

Lack of resources have put local government IT departments in a quandary, and with less room to maneuver than states, they are coming up with some unconventional solutions. Unable to attract or keep qualified personnel in leading-edge fields of technology, Humphrey said IT departments are resorting to outsourcing more than ever. He cited Hennepin County, Minn., which has outsourced all of its work involving the UNIX operating system.

Di Paolo said he has fully embraced the use of outsourcing and contract labor to supplement his staff. "We're going to carry the base staffing to keep the operations functioning here, but we simply can't be an expert at everything." He has lined up vendors who can provide contract labor on demand.

A more radical move by Di Paolo calls for turning his department into a "business unit" instead of an internal service-fund division. "Right now, my budget appears as a line item in everybody else's budget, so my funds are pre-allocated, even though they may or may not bear any resemblance to services provided," he explained. By shifting to a business model where his department will charge for services rendered, Di Paolo hopes to move decisions about allocating scarce resources to the manager responsible for the money. "I shouldn't be in the position of deciding whose IT project is more important than someone else's. In local government, we are actually running 25 businesses, many of which are unrelated. How do I choose the business that's more important?"

Di Paolo admits his business model project is on the bleeding edge in local government. So far, only one other major city has followed this path. San Diego has spun off its technology department as a nonprofit corporation, with the city as its primary, though not sole, customer. For Di Paolo, issues concerning financing and governance have to be resolved before the concept can fly. Right now, he's got a lot of arrows in his back as he tries to bring the rest of city government around to his proposal.

The Coming Citistate

Neal R. Peirce, journalist and consultant on government issues, believes the days of nations are drawing to a close. "Global trade, instant communications, and the end of the Cold War are undermining the power of nation states -- the dominant force in the world for the last 500 years," he wrote in The Peirce Report. "As nation states weaken, the world's great urban regions -- "citistates" -- are gaining prominence as the centers for the activity that counts most -- economic. They're the natural environmental basins, the true labor markets, the way the world is organized."

As examples, Peirce points to Lyon, France; Stuggart, Germany and Milan, Italy. On the Pacific Rim, there's Hong Kong, Singapore and Osaka. Here in America, citistates are evolving in New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Boston, Seattle and Atlanta. Each has its own cachet, partly based on geography, but also derived from predominance in a certain economic market, such as finance, aerospace or entertainment. Peirce believes citistates will continue to grow in less dominant locations as well.

Peirce points to a number of ingredients that will be necessary for citistates to succeed. One is, of course, technology. But without citizen trust in government, cities and counties will continue to scramble for the resources necessary for technology and other projects to succeed. "Information technology can really facilitate government operations," said PTI's Humphrey. The big question is whether government has found the solution to making it work for the benefit of its citizens.




October Table of Contents