Abilene Mayor Gary McCaleb

Mayor Gary McCaleb has used information technology for economic development and improved efficiency since his election in 1990.

by / September 30, 1996
GT: How can technology applications be used as a tool to make a resident's life better or to manage a city better?

McCaleb: I think that is the question that lies at the heart of the matter, and I'm sure that we haven't come anywhere close to discovering the full answer. I think there are at least a couple of things.

One is we know that technology is beginning to make geographic location less of a total determinate of things like jobs, accessibility, employability and so forth. People can do much of their work anywhere now. This is one of the things that we're trying to position ourselves for.

Geographically, Abilene will never become a seacoast shipping port. But that's not a determinate to the extent that it used to be in the manufacturing era, because more and more jobs, in what they are calling the information era, are connected with technology.

We aren't a manufacturing center like Detroit. As downsizing occurs, people are finding fewer jobs available in some types of industries. But jobs are opening up in new kinds of areas and industries.

We've already seen some of that happening here. Not long ago, we were able to acquire a remote postal encoding center here. They started with 200 jobs and now it's already up to 250. It's still growing and is projected to add another 100 to 150 jobs. People are working at computer terminals and encoding mail. The envelopes pass across a screen and they supply the encoding on each of those so that they go on out.

When you create economic development in areas, then the engine starts running again. I suspect there are many more applications of this that apply to education, health care, agriculture and practically every other area.

But I think the challenge for us now is to find the answers. My personal sense is that we are on the very early tip of the possibilities of how technology can serve people, and that government can use it to serve people more efficiently and improve the quality of the services.

GT: Could you tell us about the city's technology task force -- what does it do? What has it done?

McCaleb: I think it was in February 1995 that we first announced that we were establishing what we call the Mayor's Task Force on Technology. We invited 60 citizens from all areas of the community -- education, health care, business, government -- every area that we could think of, to serve on this task force.

It has served, actually, beyond my expectations of what it could do. One of the best things it did was create a sort of human communication network that was the foundation to build an infrastructure on.

Now, we're in the process of doing that, and we're certainly not anywhere close to being finished. Of course, the nature of technology means it's not as simple as building a building and having it finished. It's going to be an ongoing process because every time technology makes an advancement, we've got to know how to adjust, adapt to it and use it.

There are at least two benefits we've already seen from the task force. First, it created an awareness level in the community for people who didn't even know some of the technologies were here, or that the expertise was here.

Second, it created a spirit of cooperation. Before, the tendency seemed to be to build a wall around yourself or your company, and keep all the information to yourself. Now we're in an information-sharing mode. With more alliances and ways of creating cooperation among the entities, more can be accomplished and everybody wins.

By the way, one of the greatest things that happened as soon as this was announced was that, not only did everybody I asked to serve on the committee agree to serve, but I started having people call to ask if they could serve on it. That's not the typical experience with this sort of thing.

A year later, almost on the one-year anniversary, this task force created a Technology Awareness Week in Abilene. Every day of that week they emphasized a different theme. For example, one day's theme was education, the next day health and human services, another day business, another day government, another day public access -- that kind of thing.

The media were very cooperative in working with the task force to get that information out to people. The newspaper now carries a weekly article or feature that continues to update and talk about different aspects of technology and its role in our community today.

The net effect of Technology Awareness Week was that the people who might not have had nearly as comfortable a feeling about technology are beginning to feel this sort of rising tide in the entire community that technology is good and that everybody can benefit from it. With everybody working together, we are trying to not just move some industry or some part of the community, but everybody in the community of all ages -- senior citizens, children and all income levels -- along so that the entire population of our city realizes ways they can personally and directly benefit from it.

GT: How does a medium-sized city, which usually has fewer resources than a state or large city, make effective use of technology? Are there certain considerations and things you have to take into account that a larger jurisdiction may not have to consider?

McCaleb: You put your finger right on one of our biggest challenges, because we're not going to have the immediate access to funds that a major metropolitan center might have. And yet, I'm not ready to concede that technology can't be used as an equalizer.

I really believe that technology is going to say that size isn't as much a factor as it used to be. I think we're seeing this, especially in industry and in areas where people are realizing that the biggest company is not necessarily the best company.

Quality is now measured in terms of ability to respond, flexibility and those kinds of things. It depends on how well-organized it is, as well as the spirit of cooperation and the ability to respond. It just may be that in every case size won't be a determining factor.

It's what you might call the climate of the community, and I'm not talking about weather. Maybe you'd call it the technological climate of the community -- how receptive it is, how forward-looking it is, what it's doing. In various ways, that may be a bigger factor in decisions people make about where to locate a business or a company. Maybe it will be an increasingly important measure in the quality of education in the community or the quality of health services as they are provided in the community.

Technology can level the playing field in a number of these cases. I'm not trying to overestimate what it can do, but I just think it can be a factor there.

GT: My next question has to do specifically with the city government use of technology to provide service to residents or for administrative improvements. What can technology do beyond cutting costs and improving service?

McCaleb: I think you just touched on the two basic areas: cutting costs and improving services. The challenges are how you do that in every different area. You just described the two sides of the coin.

I guess you could break those down into different areas, but when we get together to try to plan for next year, the whole idea is how do we do this better at less cost. Whether you're applying that to safety with police and fire or to refuse collection or to any other area that the city is responsible for, it still seems like it comes back to the tension created between the two. Usually if you do one, it affects the other.

I think what happens is that there's almost traditionally been an inverse relationship between one and the other. If you improved service, it's also going to drive up costs. What you want is a way to improve service and decrease cost. That would be the ideal equation. Technology can become a way to make that possible.

One of the early areas where we introduced that was in the mobile data terminals in our police cars. There's an area where we improved service that we would have never been able to improve without that technology.

Some of these are not all that unique or unusual, it's just finding creative ways to use the available telecommuni-cations or the computer technology that's available to people and finding ways to implement it.

GT: What are some projects in Abilene that you are most proud of?

McCaleb: I just mentioned a couple of them in the police and fire areas. We have really emphasized the importance of things relating to maintaining safety for our people as they live in the community. That is a high priority with citizens everywhere. Every time we can do that we think we've made very important progress.

We also have a GIS program for mapping systems and allowing access to information. Our challenge now is realizing that it has very usable applications to a lot of different areas of our city. The very same information that's of use, for example, for one reason may also be of use to the Fire Department for another reason and may be used for traffic and engineering for another reason.

The more we can find ways to make that same information usable and available to all of these different areas, we're getting back to how sharing information is becoming easier to do and we're realizing benefits from it that hadn't been realized before.

GT: What can other municipalities learn from your experience?

McCaleb: We all are continuing to learn from each other. Usually, what I find is not so much that someone tries to pattern what some other city has done. The real question is how do I take that concept or that idea and modify it to fit my city? Generally speaking, it's not the very same thing. It's either scaling it up or scaling it down, modifying it in one way or another.

Just like people, I think cities are all different. That's one of the great things about the city level of govern-ment. It allows us to customize our responses to our citizens to meet their needs at every level.

City government is, I think, more important today in addressing the needs of the people who live there than it probably has ever been. Here, we come back to technology again. Now we have this technology tool that allows us to do a better job of that than we ever have been able to do before.

Mayor Gary McCaleb of Abilene, Texas, has advocated using information technology as a tool for economic development and improving government efficiency since his election in 1990.
McCaleb was
also a U.S. representative
at the Second
U.N. Conference
on Human Settlements in Istanbul, Turkey, this June.