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Can Dashboard Tools Finally Knock Out Excel Sheets?

Transparency, efficiency and citizen input are among the main ideals of the post-pandemic government landscape. Dashboard technology offers a way to do that but must overcome historical challenges.

Numbers on a spreadsheet.
(Shutterstock)
The city of Edina, Minn., has finally outgrown Excel — at least when it comes to crafting the next municipal budget. It’s the type of move that could play an increasingly important role in the post-pandemic government technology industry.

Just over than a month ago, the Minneapolis suburb with some 53,000 residents began using a public dashboard from Envisio. The city will use the tool to keep track of priorities, goals and actions related to the budget, with updates available to both city officials and eventually the public via a website.

Edina had used Excel, but it became “too confusing and complicated” given all the sharing, updates and revisions, MJ Lamon, Edina’s community engagement manager, told Government Technology. Her comment echoes a complaint common among city management and technology professionals.

Nor is Excel necessarily the best path toward more efficiency and transparency, as other cities have learned. Transparency and resident input have gained even more attention from state and local public agencies since the pandemic — an effort fueled in large part by declining trust in governments.

MORE DASHBOARDS


Envisio, a Canada-based gov tech provider, expects 10 more of its dashboards to go live in the first quarter of 2023 and adds that in the last three years, the number of Envisio public dashboards has increased by 86 percent.

Edina signed an annual contract last fall to start using the dashboard and plans this summer to evaluate what city employees think about the tool, according to Lamon. She envisions the technology providing ever more precise KPIs to city leaders and residents — metrics that could include, say, call volumes for fires and other emergencies, diversity on city committees, and progress made toward a climate plan.

With more than 200 action items, she said, that plan is much more searchable, and therefore useful, via the new tool than in a PDF.

Envisio, of course, isn’t the only gov tech supplier making bets on dashboards, community engagement and transparency as pandemic fears fade and governments take stock of all the digital progress they have made in recent years. A recently announced merger of two community engagement tech vendors highlights the appeal of this particular part of the gov tech industry.

“As dashboards grow in popularity, there's a range of vendors from general dashboard tools moving into government (Tableau, Power BI, Domo and more) to government-specific dashboard vendors (Zencity, First Arriving, RapidDeploy, Munetrix, Tyler/Socrata and more),” Steve Ressler, a market expert and managing partner at The Brydon Group, told Government Technology via email. “These tools have great upside as both government employees and citizens look to make sense of mission-critical data, understand how the government is performing and use these tools to make service decisions.”

LONG JOURNEY


Bringing more transparency and government input to local government involves more than deploying the latest software. Tempe, Ariz. — another Envisio dashboard customer — offers an example of that.

About seven years ago, the city created a strategic management and diversity program, and was also dealing with a tough financial situation, Wydale Holmes, strategic management analyst for Tempe, told Government Technology. Those efforts involved more than 100 performance metrics tied to city council priorities, she said. The measures had to be tracked and shared as officials collaborated on progress.

By the fall of 2020, during the pandemic, and as ties between law enforcement and the communities they serve were weakening, the mayor put more focus into building trust between the city and its police, Holmes said. A task force and a strategic plan followed, and the dashboard tool “allowed us very quickly to make good on” the recommendations that came out of the work.

“Now we are getting ready to move all of the council’s priorities over to Envisio,” she said. “It’s a great kind of sandbox for us.”

ONE-STOP SHOPPING


She described this type of technology as “one-stop shopping” — itself a larger trend among state and local governments as they move to platforms that can handle multiple tasks and streamline bureaucratic processes.

The city can use the dashboard to keep data in one centralized place, for instance, and to build centralized plans and larger goals that everyone can work on and monitor. In Tempe, those goals include reducing opioid abuse and homelessness — work that requires ample data and regular progress reports from multiple sources.

TRANSPARENCY CHALLENGES


Even with all this attention being paid to efficiency, citizen input and transparency, there still remains no guarantee public dashboards will work.

“I think the challenge historically with transparency tools was that there was an ‘if you build it they will come' mentality, where some cities or agencies would publish data on a website but never got the resident or constituent engagement they expected,” Jeff Cook, a gov tech investment expert who is managing director for Shea & Co., wrote in an email interview. “Accordingly, many of these early tools did not see much long-term adoption. From an investor perspective, that meant lower retention or stickiness relative to other categories of gov tech.”

But things seem to be changing, perhaps mainly because of the idea of one-stop shopping.

In Cook’s view, ClearGov offers an example of that. The company made a name on budget management software but “also provides an integrated transparency offering as part of a broader suite,” he said.

Indeed, as Edina and other cities move past Excel and into larger platforms and public dashboards, the investment and business outlook appears bright, given the larger context of tech packages being sold to local public agencies.

“Long term, I see transparency solutions as being a growth engine but as part of broader suites,” Cook said. “It could be financial systems like budgeting, public safety suites or citizen feedback business.”
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in New Orleans.