Cities face new and unanticipated challenges as they consider adding software. For city, town, county and regional governments around the world, this is the dawn of a new era, digital cities.
Over 557,000 municipalities in the world and most of them still rely primarily on paper processing for their workflow. The 2013 attempt by the Federal government to roll out a top priority, well-funded software initiative, the Affordable Care Act, is a good example of how complicated it can be to develop new software that fits policy and strategic goals and can be accessed by and useful to citizens. Since municipalities first started investing in computers in the late 1960’s, cities relied on computers to crunch large amounts of data on taxes, road repair costs, etc. and spit out paper reports for managers to interpret. The advent of desk top computers made every manager his own secretary and opened opportunities for specific kinds of software yielding specialty reports by departmental interest. Police departments had one kind of software. Libraries had another. By 2010 old line software companies like IBM, Oracle and SAP found themselves competing with new, special purpose, low cost software companies, all of them lining up at the door of the city purchasing office.
This growing interest in software for cities caught cities by surprise. There aren’t just more companies and more varieties of software, now there are new purposes for software implying new relationships between the city government and the software users. The use of social media in our private lives, sharing our activities, tracking friends’ adventures, crept into an understanding of how cities should use software. A whole new class of software for cities to promote civic engagement is growing rapidly. For a city purchasing office accustomed to buying licenses to upgrade their suite of office software, the volume of new software salesmen at the city’s door is a shock. The new “gold standard” for public sector software is not just “can it print out reports”. There are big changes afoot. Cities need a whole new analytical framework, a mission statement, a strategic plan, for how to think about software and what purchases are important for the city’s needs. New kinds of software offer greater productivity for city assets, lower prices, tantalizing new ways to make specific line departments more efficient and seductive opportunities to have seamless communication between city managers and citizens. To make the right choices, cities will need to get an overview of what they have, where they want to go and what they need to get there. Here are the top ten rules for municipalities who are considering a major investment in their software infrastructure.
- Know your data users. As a governmental entity cities have
- Responsibilities established in law to provide services and protect the quality of life of citizens.
- Regulatory responsibilities to perform in compliance with law and policy.
- Goals for staff effectiveness, including carrying out legal and regulatory responsibilities in a cost effective way and gaining approval from citizens for quality of service.
- Audit your existing software.
- How does each existing software investment relate to legal, regulatory and performance goals listed above?
- Identify any limitations of existing software.
- What are the key attributes of the software? Can the City make adjustments in how the software works without paying the software author? Can each software system connect to the municipal database and other software via an API or some other kind of built in gateway? Is the software “open source”, allowing the city to make changes as the city’s needs and goals change?
- Do managers, staff and citizens all have appropriate levels of access to the software and do they use this access?
- Take a look at the data you have from city operations, both directly related to the city’s data gathering responsibilities and from other agencies that serve the city.
- Data from city operations can include property tax information; restaurant, liquor, building and other permits issued by date and location; inspectional services data, including negative reports; budget information by department; health services provided by type and location; public safety interventions (police, fire, ambulance) calls by date and location; park and recreation program services by date and location; library services by date and location; long term capital investments made by date, program and location;
- Data from other agencies that provide services to or have information about city residents can include school data: US Census information on population age, occupation, etc.; social welfare, child welfare, human services and mental health information, including licensing information for day care, adult day care, mental health counselling, nursing home operations, etc.; public transit information; taxi and other private transit information; water and sewer services and rates; trash collection services and rates; utility company and state highway repair or construction schedules
- Define all key users of municipal data and their needs and intentions.
- Policy makers, including managers and elected officials, who need accurate data to help them strategically direct city assets in ways that will meet legal, regulatory, managerial and political requirements.
- City workers who need software to more effectively manage parks maintenance, restaurant inspections, etc.
- Other levels of government like county, regional, transit, school, etc. who want to coordinate programs and services with the city.
- Citizens who want to plan specific activities in their own lives like selecting a school, mapping the best commute, finding a home to buy with a good ratio of taxes to value.
- Citizens who want to engage with their community and have a voice in shaping policy and program decisions.
- List the requirements of a city software platform.
- One software system or many?
- Closed source or open source?
- Virtuous circle or static?
- Citizen users or staff only?
- Static or interactive with good user interface.
- List rules for designing and operating a city software system.
- What are the core principles governing investment in and use of software?
- Who are the constituents who will benefit?
- Will the software be “consumer grade” or will it feel like DOS 2.0 to a citizen or a staff user?
- How will access be provided?
- How will useability be enabled?
- How will accuracy be maintained?
- How will privacy be ensured?
- List the software tools needed to create the software platform the city envisions for it’s constituents.
- Will some current software programs need to be shelved or re-designed?
- Will they need to be linked to each other and common data bases?
- What new software tools are needed?
- Ensure user privacy, citizen privacy and data security.
- How will this be accomplished?
- Who will be responsible?
- Who will have oversight for quality control?
- Measure usefulness.
- Who is using the software?
- How are they using it?
- How does it improve efficiency?
- Citizen engagement?
- Legal and regulatory compliance?
- How does it affect the city’s budget?
The ultimate goal of a new, 21st century software system for a city is that it can operate as a “virtuous circle” where the suppliers of information feed the needed data to the users of information and those users have an opportunity to interact with the data in ways that will refresh and reshape the supply of data that is provided so that new data sources and software tools evolve to meet new user needs.
with special thanks to Sangeet Paul Choudray and his work on software platforms; and to the Town of Arlington, Massachusetts, especially Town Manager: Adam Chapdelaine, Director of GIS: Adam Kurowski, IT Manager: David Good and their work on drafting a municipal “IT Strategic Plan and Schedule”.
The Arlington IT Strategic Plan is now available. See it here: https://assetstewardship.com/arlington-ma-it-strategic-plan/