With the tight budgets that most public safety agencies have been dealing with for the past few years, every dollar spent must be justified. In times of such frugality, it’s difficult for government agencies to funnel extra cash for technological improvements. Two new tools from IBM claim to show how ramping up public safety’s IT capabilities can actually save the agencies money.

Last month, IBM released the Benefit Estimator for Government, which is free and available online, and a Return on Investment Calculator. Both give police, fire and emergency medical services an estimate of the direct and indirect savings that could come from upgrading their IT infrastructure, according to John Reiners, the government lead for the IBM Center for Applied Insights.

With the online tool, users enter in their agency-specific information — including how many employees they have, how big their budget is and even the time their employees spend doing paperwork — and then select where they are in terms of several IT-related categories and where they want to be. The tool then calculates how much the agencies could save and breaks it down, showing users where each type of upgrade would save money — on improved resource deployment, agency cost savings, employee efficiency, victim cost avoidance, criminal justice cost savings, societal benefits and improved resource deployment.

An IBM report, for example, estimates that a police department that pays $350 million in annual operating costs could save $60 million a year in direct savings and more than $200 million in indirect savings if it upgraded all of its IT capabilities to the highest level possible.

For a real-life example, Baltimore estimates that it saves more than $1.50 for every dollar it spends on its video surveillance system because less crime is committed and thus less funds are used to jail, convict and rehabilitate people, according to the report.

Unlike most ROI calculators, which estimate the value of a certain company's product or service, IBM's is not based on a particular vendor but rather a collection of vendors based on their research. But users beware: The Benefit Estimator for Government is just as it says — an estimate and not an exact calculation. This is best illustrated by the tool's lack of accounting for implementation costs, which can be extremely costly for some IT upgrades. Though agencies can’t rely on the tool's estimates, they are based on extensive research and several hundred case studies of public safety agencies.

A few public safety agencies — one large city on each coast and one medium-sized city in the Southeast — have already expressed interest in IBM's ROI calculator, according to Gary Nestler, a global public safety expert for IBM. He couldn't mention which cities because of safety and privacy concerns.

"Public safety entities need something like this. They're now forced to prove why they need to spend the money they need to spend," Nestler said. And these tools, he said, "give them a level of awareness they've never had before."

This story was originally published by GOVERNING.

Caroline Cournoyer  | 

Caroline Cournoyer is a staff writer for Governing.