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What Is Considered 'Smart' Government in the Digital Age?

And where in government is innovation easiest to find?

RALEIGH, N.C. — Where do advances in good government take place, and what constitutes “smart” anything in a time when buzzwords run rampant in the tech environment? A panel of experts from all levels of North Carolina government gathered to hash out the definition and discuss where they look for ideas when it comes to moving their respective organizations forward.

In an hour-long panel Aug. 30, during the North Carolina Digital Government Summit, officials from state and local government discussed the issues of working with vendors, defining “smart” in the digital age and accurately measuring success.

After some deliberation, panelists seemed to settle on the idea that smart government means different things to different organizations, but agreed that the term followed in the footsteps of market-driven buzzwords that preceded it.

“I’ve been struggling for a while now to figure out what does that mean for our organization, our county government or for government in general,” said moderator and Wake County CIO Bill Greeves.

Its place along the technology continuum seems to fall in the same ranks as words like “e-government and cloud” Greeves said — an almost condescending way to spur business.

“It seems to me there are one or two ways you can look at it," he added. "One, it’s just a hype term made up by the vendor community to sell stuff, frankly. And now everyone seems to be glomming on to it. Or the alternative definition is that it seems to be sort of an extremely generic term that can include a lot of things that we are probably already doing, like data analytics, sensors we mentioned, mobility, even social media.”

Nicole Raimundo, co-panelist and CIO for the town of Cary, said the phrase implies that what has been going on to this point is somehow not smart. She countered that while technology is certainly a component of good government, it does not solve everything.

“I’m not a big fan of the word, because I wonder what we were doing before ‘smart,’” she explained. “I think at the end of the day, it’s what problems are we trying to solve, and so I think that every time someone talks about a new solution … what problem are you trying to solve? I think we need to make sure we are asking that question before we just go and build in sensors because it seems like a really cool idea.”

Raimundo added that her town is focusing on putting technology in the right places for the right reasons, rather than simply jumping into projects with the hopes it will fix a poorly defined problem.

For panelist Jim Alberque, who serves as GIS and engagement technologies manager for the city of Raleigh, the conversation around smart technologies and cities must include the organization’s appetite for risk.

Where Raleigh has been working to pilot technologies on a smaller scale, technologists need to consider whether a given technology will add something to the organization.

“Whether the term is the right term, smart cities is about doing things differently," Alberque said. "It’s about exponential versus linear. It’s about evolution versus revolution. Is it a change in how we are doing business, or is it just a natural progression to what we are doing? If it’s different, then I feel comfortable talking about it as a smart city initiative."

At the state level, Innovation Center Director Deante’ Tyler said the word is not for the private sector to define. His team would like to see customers given the technologies that allow them to more easily serve themselves with access to state services, like Department of Motor Vehicles renewals or fishing license purchases.

While the scale of state government makes those offerings more challenging, Tyler said it warrants consideration and careful deployment.

“We try to define smart for the state. We don’t allow the vendors to define smart for us, especially in state-level government," he said. "The footprint for things like sensors or streetlights and traffic cameras, different things like that might be rather small compared to the larger enterprise, so for us, we define smart, it is not going to be defined for us.”

When it comes to where innovation and new ideas thrive, the panel seemed to agree that the local and regional levels offered the most agility and flexibility. Smaller towns, though often not as well-funded as larger government organizations, can more carefully deploy solutions and measure their success in a controlled environment.

Tyler said that the state not only looks to smaller organizations as spot-tests for new ideas, but also as information sharing partners.

Whereas the private sector is constantly competing and playing its cards close to the chest, Raimundo said the public sector offers an advantage in the sense that there is idea sharing.

Eyragon Eidam is the managing editor for Industry Insider — California. He previously served as the daily news editor for Government Technology. He lives in Sacramento, Calif.