Friday, April 27, 2007

Government Tech Mirrors Internet Evolution

Open government's development by way of technology is a mirror image of the internet's life-path. Like most law offices or tax preparers, local governments are perpetually behind the technology curve. Normally, this is a bad thing. The diamond in the rough, however, is that the slack gives us a clear guide for predicting the future.

The Past has Passed
In the beginning, when Al Gore was being mistaken for an inventor, the internet was about connecting data and bringing it together through a single interface. Standards were developed, organizations were created and a whole new world of alphabet soup was born. This was the period of Data Unification.

Data unification in government started out as the Office of the City Clerk. It was made up of file cabinets and huge tomes of deteriorating paper. As the starting point, this isn't very unified data and certainly isn't easily accessible. Data unification for governments truly began when they started finding ways to go paperless - being in this Paperless period meant having digital data, all connected in one system. This was the birth of municipal wordflow systems. Amazingly, there are still only about five such systems out there today.

The Present in the Internet Past
The next period of the internet's evolution was Data Distribution. During this time, search technology was developed, dynamic data displays were generated and the internet actually became useable by the public for the first time.

The government tech correlation to the Data Distribution period is obvious: with unification comes rule-based smart-routing of data, workflow standardization, instant reporting and internet publication. The effect is awesome. Local government agendas and minutes are available in real-time, the press' constant flow of FOIA requests slows to a trickle, citizen awareness is raised to an all time high and for the first time in a long time, governments start feeling like they're there for the people. This period is your town's Open Government period.

This is where local government is still playing catch-up. All over the e-universe, articles are popping up demonstrating the demand for open government wordflow systems. Towns are scrambling to satisfy their constituencies at the open government level. Just wait until more small towns do what Milwaukee or Long Beach have done: the peer pressure for techno-improvement will really have the dais in a panic.

The Future in the Internet Present
Right now, the internet is in a new period. People call it Web 2.0. It's all about development through collaboration. Look at the immense video library that is or the social networks like LinkedIn and the more casual MySpace. These sites are in existence only because of the collaboration of their users. This is the Data Collaboration period.

As revolutionary as this period is for internet surferdom, so it will be for government technology. The message of data collaboration is efficiency; a primary goal for all municipalities. This is the period where governments will not only be truly connected to their constituencies in contributive scenarios never before dreamed, local governments will be using technology to work with each other to be more efficient. Collaborative procurement will be gigantic, solution sharing will be key, and tax dollars will go further than ever. This will be the period of Collaborative Governing.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Leadership in Municipal Digital Makeovers

In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.
- Harry S. Truman

Leadership is a unanimously unquestioned necessity, save for the arguments of various teenagers and anarchists, particularly in scenarios riddled with the ambiguity of responsibility ownership. Quite often the problem with giving your town a digital makeover is that there is confusion about who's responsible. And let's face it, given the choice of maintaining a stable work routine or being the person where the buck of digital revolution stops, most people will jump through hoops for the former. Having the right leader in implementing a municipal wordflow system is foundational to its success.

Governments are businesses and businesses are made of people (not to mention created by the people, for the people). Never confuse those people for simple cogs in a machine. This arcane perception of corporate machinery can cause long term problems and foundational failure. It is because they are people that leadership must be fundamentally intent on making life better for everyone.

Clerical offices and IT departments (both made of people) in municipalities are not always very cohesive. This frequently is because they speak different languages (Geekish and Clerkanese) and see each other differently than they see themselves. Leadership's first goal should be to get both parties on the same boat sailing to the land of proficiency as a team. As elementary as this appears, time and again, city to city, I have experienced these two factions at odds with each other because one or the other tries to turn wordflow and workflow changes into a territorial pissing. Who wins? Perhaps only one ego. Who loses? The citizen. When the citizen loses, your municipality has failed.

This failure is to be avoided at all costs. Interpersonal friction is hard to overcome, but it is absolutely necessary. Believe it or not, those frictions are frequently smoothed by doing the exact opposite of the effect they have: collaboration. The leader needs to have the knowledge and expertise of both the Clerical process and the IT department. Make sure that tandem is in place. Designate the people who will provide that brain power and give your new team a name. If you call it the Digital Advancement Group, then have "Digital Advancement Group" meetings. Give the members ownership, thereby fostering individual leadership.

Finally, make the members understand that they are not doing this for the workplace so much as they are doing it for the citizen. Within the walls of a Village Hall, this may sound hokey, but people need to be reminded why they're there and they need to be doing the job for the right reason.

Leading a digital makeover in governments is building legacy for the leaders, the participants and the citizens. Take pride, do it right and lead for the people.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Open Government: Not Just for Big Cities Anymore

Open government initiatives at the local level for many years were only found in big cities, but the development of new affordable tech solutions have brought municipalities of all sizes into the mix. Now, small communities like Pembroke Pines, FL and Lombard, IL are providing the same searchable easy access to their legislative information as larger ones such as Philadelphia, Miami or Long Beach.

The list seems to be growing rapidly: West Allis, WI and Jonesboro, AR are announcing plans to implement new open government solutions on their websites in the coming months, while Madison, WI has just received top tech city honors for their population category from the Center for Digital Government two years in a row.

Information connectivity and efficient wordflow is paramount to the success of open government in this paperless age. As informational flow is the product of any local government’s Clerk’s Office, not surprisingly, it is quite frequently the Clerks themselves who fight to acquire the right technologies or for the changing of laws to allow for more efficient dispersal of data.

“We have been trying for some time to affect a change in the laws of the state of Wisconsin to permit our posting of agendas via [Legistar] InSite to serve as the official postings required by statute,” says Milwaukee Deputy-Clerk Jim Owczarski. “Wisconsin's Open Records Law is justifiably well-known for its breadth and depth, but, in some respects, remains blinkered by its having been drafted in an era before the broad accessibility of the Internet.”

There are still well over eight thousand local governments that need to get into the same practice of informational transparency: some with resource hurdles, some with political hurdles and some with educational hurdles. Technology usually solves resource issues. Teaching the right local government personnel what technology can do for their wordflow leaves only political roadblocks.

Luckily, one of the most effective tools against political obstructions is the progress of peers. As each small local government brings its data to the people via internet solutions, it is the smaller city with the great service that will be influencing the bigger ones nearby. As the wordflow of all local governments evolves, we will eventually enter a new age of collaborative open government where aggregated searches, mutual procurement and smart networking will yield a new standard in efficiency nationwide.