Municipal Technology: Get on Board!
This month, Ryan Barton, President of Mainstay Technologies, discussed with us the changes and opportunities municipalities will find in the quickly changing world of technology.
Q: What changes do you see on the horizon in the way that municipalities will use technology?
A: It’s a fascinating time, with a lot of coming change. I see at least five major influences on municipalities and their use of technology in the near future.
First, citizens are used to having electronic communication at their fingertips whenever they want it. These citizens expect increasing access to their municipal government so that they can interact with government officials online, obtain information, fill out applications, file forms, and other tasks without having to go to the town or city hall. They expect more efficiency in government and access at all times of day.
Second, as more systems become digitized, there is pressure to share information across municipal departments as well as with citizens. There are still a lot of “silos” of information. Each department has “their” information on its own system, making it difficult to share that information between, say, the fire department and the town administrator, or the selectmen and the public works department. Efficient conduct of government going forward will require more integrated systems so departments can access information more easily. This will save time and effort (and ultimately, public money).
Third, the federal and state government is increasing the pressure it places on municipal government to provide more information (and more services) under various programs. Increased use of technology is one of the best ways to resolve the challenges of shrinking budgets and staff while still complying with federally-mandated reporting.
Fourth, regardless of any federal requirements, the smart use of technology is one of the best ways to accomplish necessary tasks with reduced staff and increasingly stretched budgets.
And finally, we can’t forget that the face of the workforce is changing. As younger people join the local government workforce, they expect to see innovation. They are creating pressure across the state for municipalities to adopt various forms of technology to simplify access to information, facilitate communication, and increase public input into government. These new employees and officials are wondering why local governments are not using Twitter or Facebook, creating interactive websites, and allowing some form of telecommuting. These are issues every municipality is going to face soon, if not today.
Q: What trends do you see in local government in the use of technology such as email, websites, security, and social media?
A: Technology is no longer just the Information Technology professional’s responsibility. Increasingly, ownership and management of computer technology must occur at all levels within government, and education on the uses and pitfalls of technology are expected in every department. Good decisions have to be made at all levels about these issues. A town or city cannot develop good goals and strategies to move forward without knowledge about what is available and how to use it.
Many municipalities are still struggling with IT support to ensure reliable systems. The right IT support is important to take care of what they have, at a minimum, so the systems work well and are helpful. Having solid systems and solid support is the absolute foundation – the “must have” – in order to leverage any innovation.
Security is also something municipalities are more and more aware of. With technology, the opportunities and security risks increase together. Investment in security and helpful IT employees or contractors is an increasing focus in many communities.
Q: What do you think municipal officials and employees should know about available technologies, how to use it, and the costs associated with it?
A: Perhaps the most important idea is that technology is not something to be afraid of. It is an opportunity. It simply needs the same focus and management that everything else in municipal government needs. Municipalities are seeing the ways in which the use of technology can make a difference in the simplicity of communication with citizens, the ease of providing information to the public, and the efficiency of storing, using, and finding important information on a daily basis.
One hurdle many towns and cities face is the expense of obtaining or upgrading their technology equipment and capability. The rate of change in technology over the past decade has been astonishing, but that rate will be even greater in the next 10 years. Putting the pieces in place now, including infrastructure, knowledge, training, plans, policies, and partnerships with those who can provide advice and assistance, is critical. Investments made now can increase future success. Those who do not invest now will be that much further behind as the rate of change and advancement increases.
It is also important to emphasize that with technology, there is a return on the investment. It is not like the electricity bill (something that just “must be paid”); this return can actually be quantified. Officials and budget committees should look for the results that are obtained through the investments made in technology, and staff should try to explain this as clearly as possible to those officials and committees at budget time. This is an area in which the budget should be increased to keep up with the opportunities, even in hard times.
Think about this: if a town or city invests in new systems or training that save their staff just 10 minutes per day, that works out to 40 hours per year per employee. That is one work week of savings, thanks to increased efficiencies. Saving time for municipal staff can relieve much of the burden on their time, which is increasingly important as municipal budgets are strained or reduced. This success can be increased by focusing on staff processes, ways that the public can serve themselves, and other efficiencies in data management and access. To do this, it is important to provide more tools and training for staff so they can take advantage of the potential that technology offers.
Q: What suggestions can you offer to help municipalities as they look to use technology?
A: Take advantage of the resources that are available! There are many technology companies in the state that are excited to work with towns and cities to provide training, feedback, use policies, and information on new and improved systems, as well as advice on selling a technology budget to those who pass the budget and then using those funds wisely.
In addition, don’t forget that your fellow communities may have already traveled this road. Consult similarly-sized towns or cities who are ahead of your community in the use of technology, and find out what they have done that was good (and not so good). Learn from their experiences!
Remember – technology is not going away. The opportunities and challenges increase every year. Successful municipalities will be those who are forward-looking and take advantage of all the resources that are available.
Ryan Barton is President of Mainstay Technologies, a 2013 Business of the Year award winning company. He has many years of experience working with New Hampshire municipalities to introduce, improve, and update technology in municipalities and schools.