In Small-Town Governments, IT Departments Rarely Exist

Many cities and towns are struggling to keep up with the latest technological advances. But in a few places, their bigger peers are willing to help.

by / July 3, 2017
Oakland County, Mich., CIO Phil Bertolini David Kidd

Government has an IT gap. Large cities and counties, able to afford the digital infrastructure, platforms and software applications that the public sector increasingly relies on to deliver services, are pulling ahead of smaller cities and towns that get by with servers in closets, out-of-date software and virtually no cybersecurity protection. The problem is widespread and can be found in every state where the urban-rural divide is acute.

Take Michigan, which has nearly 1,300 municipalities. The smaller jurisdictions there are struggling to keep up with the latest technological advances: Most are lucky if they have a single employee designated to handle IT, and almost all lack the money.

In Michigan, local governments are limited constitutionally on how much they can raise property taxes, restricting one of the few sources of revenue for cities and towns. Making matters worse, the state is returning less money to local governments through revenue-sharing payments -- $1.2 billion in 2016, down from nearly $1.6 billion in 2001. It adds up overall to fewer dollars to cover government operations, which means skimping on quality IT.

A 2015 survey of 200 small local governments in Washington state by the nonprofit Municipal Research and Services Center found that a majority of respondents didn’t have any staff members dedicated to IT, let alone IT security. While it pertains to just one state, the numbers reflect what is happening more broadly.

To Phil Bertolini, CIO of Oakland County, Mich., these are big problems. “When you are managing IT with such limited resources,” he says, “to have a breach to a critical system, such as local tax collection, could really cost you.”

Oakland County, with a population of 1.2 million people and an annual IT budget of more than $16 million, has the IT resources that most local governments in Michigan lack. And Bertolini wants to share them. “The small towns in Michigan don’t have the resources or the money, but we are large and have the capabilities,” he says. “I look at assisting the smaller governments as part of our mission.”

That philosophy has been turned into a unique service known as the G2G Marketplace -- part expert advice, part technology transfer and part helping hand -- that is aiding more than 100 government entities both in Oakland County and in the rest of the state. Starting modestly in 2011 to provide small governments transactional e-commerce assistance, the county has expanded its offerings to include cloud computing, online workforce management services and security tools. Local governments aren’t charged anything to participate. Instead, Oakland takes a share of any access fee a city or town might charge for a service that takes place over the county’s computers.

The G2G Marketplace is appealing to small municipalities because they’re dealing with another government that understands their business and their needs. “They know we aren’t trying to sell them something they don’t need,” says Bertolini, “and we are not trying to make a profit out of this.”

A handful of counties in Florida, Maryland and Virginia are also providing IT support and services to the smaller cities and towns in their jurisdictions. But Bertolini says the idea has been slow to spread. He explains that some vendors aren’t happy with the competition, with the fact that a government is offering IT services at a lower cost. “This is unique,” he adds. “Some large governments are too consumed with their own problems to venture out and help smaller governments. You have to really want to do this. You have to be passionate about this idea of helping smaller governments.”

This article was originally published on Governing.

Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.