GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/Building new system requires careful plan
A technology revolution has reached municipal governments across the nation. Local administrations have rushed to set up Web sites, spent billions of dollars to bring better and faster computers to the desktops of municipal employees, and invested countless dollars in underground cables and software programs.
Through it all, few paused to analyze the particular needs of their communities. Loads of taxpayer money later, many communities have begun to realize that the movement of information and delivery of services by technological means requires a slow and deliberate planning process.
The first step in the process of building an e-government system is to recognize that it is a system. Developing an e-government system is not the same as purchasing new equipment for City Hall. System building requires more careful study and reflection.
The city must analyze and determine potential users, define project scope, set goals, create success measurements, weigh the costs and benefits of each option, and prepare a capital improvement plan. It also must identify and communicate with neighboring cities and others who will interact with the e-government system (e.g., school districts, libraries, community colleges, universities, state governments, other local governments, and cable and telecommunication companies).
Finally, cities must prepare to fund system installation, maintenance and e-government system upgrades. The rapid and efficient accumulation, transmission and storage of massive amounts of data require highly sophisticated electronic networks that will serve multiple users. Networks cost money and staff time and, most importantly, require a long-term commitment from the community.
Farmington Hills, Mich., recognizes the long-term commitment involved in building an e-government system, and it has proceeded slowly and deliberately. Five years ago, the city began Phase One of its three-phase plan to implement technology in the city. It hired a consultant, interviewed its staff members and developed a strategy to bring new computers, software and training into City Hall.
Everyone was required to attend training. While each staff member attended class, technicians installed new equipment on their desks. Following class, everything staff members learned could be immediately applied at work.
Phase Two brought council members into the fold as the city created “paperless” council packets. Again, training was mandatory for all members. Each council member received a laptop computer, printer and online password.
Every weekend, council members download their packets to their laptops. As a result, the costs of printing and organizing paper council packets have been drastically reduced. A standard format is used for each city department’s reports, so even reformatting problems have been eliminated.
The city is now entering Phase Three, which is the deployment of its Web site. The Web site will not be interactive initially. It will contain meeting schedules, all meeting minutes, city codes and ordinances, and downloadable city permit forms. It will soon feature online registration for park and recreation programs, and it eventually will allow users and city staff to communicate and conduct business online.
Each community is unique, but the elements of successful e-government systems are not. Success depends on recognizing that building a system requires a long-term commitment, clearly defined goals, a detailed plan to reach those goals, standards to measure achievement, and, above all, a keen ear to the system’s users to incorporate their needs and expectations into the plan.
The author is a council member for Farmington Hills, Mich., and a member of the National League of Cities steering committee for Information Technology and Communications.