How technology is enabling more cost-effective city administration

We hear a lot about how technology can help individuals and businesses to manage better, to connect, to socialise, to organise. But what about cities? Public administration doesn’t have a very good reputation for managing and using technology. Consider, for example, the very public examples of badly-run IT projects such as the NHS’s Connecting for Health, or HM Revenue and Customs’ failure to safeguard child benefit data adequately. But now some cities and states are taking control of the technology and making it work for them.

BostonThe mayor of Boston has announced that all city workers will move to a unified, cloud-based messaging system later this year, replacing multiple systems. And Boston is not the first. In March, the state of Colorado announced that it would be moving its 26,000 state employees to a cloud-based system replacing 15 separate mail systems . Other states who have already moved to cloud-based systems include Wyoming, Utah and Maryland.

So what do these cities and states hope to achieve?

First, the move is expected to save money. IT teams will be able to stop maintaining multiple servers and avoid any necessary technical upgrades to old systems. Only the technology that is used will be paid for. In Boston, savings are expected to be in the order of 30% annually on the old systems, and Colorado estimates that costs will reduce by about half.

But the new approach also has huge advantages in terms of its scalability. Server-based systems have often struggled to cope with increasing numbers of users, and many are working way beyond their original scope. Cloud-based systems are much more flexible. And the technical support, maintenance and security are often provided by the seller. Other users of cloud-based systems, including the city of St Augustine, in Florida, point to the advantages of automatic back-up, improving storage and security, and enabling them to comply with information retention requirements.

Cloud-based technology also allows city employees to remain in touch wherever they are working. This hugely improves productivity. And outside the US, Barcelona has implemented the cloud-based ‘Third Place’, to allow connectivity from all over the city, and so attract both tourists and business people. This project emerged from a desire to create a “seamless environment” for mobile working across the city, that would increase productivity for businesses, and also attract visitors. And the city is finding that it is achieving this ambition.

In Saudi Arabia, cloud-based systems have even been used to improve public health, by enabling employees at the Ministry of Health to co-ordinate vaccination programmes. The entire healthcare system can operate as a whole, and is accessible from anywhere. The technology can be used to track the location of vaccines, to ensure that there is enough supply to meet demand in each location. And it doesn’t just work for vaccination campaigns, but would also enable early and swift preventive management of any outbreaks of communicable disease.

But are these just isolated examples, or the beginnings of a real change? A study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, sponsored by Siemens, on ICT for city management looked at the role of ICT competitiveness, physical infrastructure, the natural environment and public administration.

The report suggests that basic ICT infrastructure such as broadband and wi-fi is crucial to attracting investment. But e-government services that enable more effective interactions with government are also attractive, and affect competitiveness. ICT also has plays a role in managing transport systems, for example, through congestion charging and traffic-flow management. It can also help cities to manage scarce resources, and hence protect the natural environment. Giving citizens accurate data about their own water and energy consumption is expected to change behaviour, especially if coupled with financial incentives. Finally, ICT has a role in public administration, and the report considers the importance of changing attitudes, in the public and government alike, in order to maximise the use of ICT.

The conclusion seems to be similar to that made by commentators in our previous post on the future in cities: no matter how good the technology, it needs to work for people. City and state governments cannot rely on their technology alone; they have to know what their citizens want and need, and supply services that meet those needs. But the big advantage is that this new technology can help cities and states to engage better with their public. Instead of just ‘listening’, they can harness the creativity of their population (for example, in developing apps to report on or engage with city services). Moving to cloud-based systems is only the start of the revolution.

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