It used to be that powerful computing resources were the exclusive domain of large cities with big budgets. However, the growing availability of affordable, cloud-accessible IT solutions is bringing the advantages of mobility to small and medium-sized municipalities. The result of this technical ubiquity: More and more U.S. citizens are reaping the benefits of innovative technology that allows local government fieldworkers to do their jobs more quickly and efficiently.
I’m seeing this happen right now in Westfield, Ind., a small city just north of Indianapolis. Westfield has only about 200 government workers and a budget of $33 million to serve its 33,000 residents, but the city is making those resources count with a new Web portal called WeConnect.
Released in February, the tool allows residents to apply for permits, pay bills, report potholes and submit other service requests. The real game changer for Westfield is what happens when citizens submit a service request, either by calling into City Hall or using WeConnect. Where previously service requests would sit unopened in email inboxes, the new system instantly notifies city workers out in the field by generating work orders on their tablets.
This combination of new cloud-accessible, easily implemented customer relationship management (CRM) technology coupled with mobility has already enabled meaningful results. Westfield’s chief of staff, Todd Burtron, told me about a recent pothole report that came in from a driver who had sustained vehicular damage from the crater. Thanks to the system’s instant notification system for city fieldworkers, the pothole was filled “within a matter of minutes” — so fast, in fact, that the road was already fixed by the time the driver returned to photograph the site.
All of this is made possible by a sophisticated suite of services. WeConnect is powered in part by Microsoft Dynamics CRM, a cloud-accessible tool. In choosing the technology, Burtron and his team sought to emulate two innovative big-city models — Boston’s Citizens Connect app and Toronto’s 311 app — but customized the solution to fit their needs and budget.
The decision to invest in an efficiency-enhancing tool was right in line with Westfield Mayor Andy Cook’s philosophy in the current tough fiscal climate. “In our environment in Indiana, we’ve got to become more innovative,” the mayor told me. “We have to do more with less, which is the right thing to do.”
That’s an approach that more small cities would be wise to duplicate. As Burtron said: “There are many more city of Westfields across the fruited plain than there are the big metropolitan hubs, and I think we can prove that smaller cities and towns could and should be doing this.”
The success that Westfield and other peers have seen with mobility is evidence that the technology can deliver real results for cities of any size. The cloud allows the best services in the world to be relatively quickly delivered to local government, eliminating the need for expensive enterprise licenses, cumbersome legacy infrastructure and human talent that can integrate it all together. Just because your city’s budget is small doesn’t mean cloud mobility is out of reach.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.