The following is a guest post from Logan Kleier, the Chief Information Security Officer of the City of Portland, OR. Welcome, Logan!
A stagnant U.S. economy continues to affect the fortunes of city governments. According to a September 2011 report by the National League of Cities, cities have experienced their fifth straight year to year revenue decline dating back to 2007. Government IT budgets follow this same economic trend by either remaining the same each year or shrinking, while their responsibilities grow. For example, Houston’s Department of Information Technology went from 164 full time equivalents (FTEs) in 2011 to 126 in the 2012 budget. Given the ongoing economic climate, we should expect this trend to continue. The most vexing part of this situation is that government IT is struggling to deliver answers because it uses yesterday’s technology to deliver answers for today’s problems.
Most people agree that technological innovation enables organizations to solve old problems in new ways. This is the classic definition of innovation. We know that the private sector bets on innovation to deliver answers to problems. Innovation isn’t always easy or successful, but many well known companies regularly and systematically invest in it.
For example, no one disputes that the birth of Google Maps fundamentally changed how people search and organize geo-spatial data. This tradition of investing in technology is not a new phenomenon. The roots of innovation date are not limited to “tech-sector” companies. GE, long considered to be a stalwart of American business, created the icon of all innovation, the light bulb.
And yet, curiously we see very little of this investment mindset in city government. Cities should be systematically investing in innovation, but they don’t. In fact, technology investment roadmaps are virtually non-existent for most of 20 largest cities (or at a minimum can’t be found through any search engine). Some of this is due to the fact that government entities have a lower risk tolerance than the private sector. Fears of being criticized by voters for waste always weigh on elected and appointed officials minds. Invariably, press coverage for struggling technology projects are marked as a failure and not as organizational learning opportunities.
As case in point, the City of Portland’s municipal WiFi experiment (Full disclosure: I managed this project) was roundly criticized in the press as a waste of taxpayer dollars. And yet the city invested no money in the company and learned various valuable lessons about the WiFi’s usefulness for mobile city workers.
With this said, there seems to be another reason for a lack of technological innovation in city government. That reason is that innovation has not been codified into a practice within city government. Some view technological innovation as a serendipitous moment where mysterious forces align to produce an inspirational solution to a troubling problem. While this may happen in some cases, the reality of innovation is that there appears to be certain practices that enable innovation to happen in a more systematic fashion.
The three things that seem to characterize forward thinking cities are: 1) a philosophical commitment to technological innovation, 2) a financial commitment and 3) a centralized and empowered authority for innovation. Cities applying technological innovations to old problems are not practicing in “eureka” moments. Instead, they are applying the principles listed above.
A philosophical commitment to technological innovation often comes in the form of a policy and/or political commitment to technology. For example, the wide variety of open data initiatives have been linked to explicit policy and political commitment to open government through the use of broader data access.
Those municipalities where the mayor and CIO create a commitment to technology are the ones with the clearest progress towards utilizing innovative software or programs (like Code for America) to solve municipal issues. Second, a financial commitment is just as important. While policy and political commitments matter, if there is no financial backing to this policy, it is more likely that innovation will be only an idea. Clear and sufficient budget enables results. Lastly, some cities have appointed senior level IT officials with a centralized and empowered authorization to apply various innovations to solve problems.
These are some of the commonalities that bind city technology innovators. What else do you see as the necessary to codifying innovation into city government? And where do you see it happening?
Logan is the Chief Information Security Officer for the City of Portland. He can be reached at @PortlandInfoSec or logan.kleier [@] portlandoregon.gov
Disclaimer: These opinions are my own and do not represent the views of the City of Portland.