Reinventing Local Government

Every once in a while an idea comes along that’s so simple but so compelling that it sticks in my head for days.  It also makes me wonder, “Why the heck didn’t I think of that?”  An exchangeable tank for your gas grill fits the bill. So does the iPod. But not the Internet – After all, I’m not Al Gore.

Last week Bob Hanson, CIO of Sarasota County Florida, gave a talk at the ALI Performance Measures in Government conference that caused one of those moments.  Bob made the case that municipal governments should share their assets because they aren’t in competition, unlike their for-profit private sector counterparts. Consider the math for email for the 10K cities and counties in the U.S.:

  • Sarasota County alone spends more than $100K every year to operate their email system.
  • Since Sarasota County is probably larger than most, assume the average yearly cost is $25K.
  • Therefore, something like $2.5B is spent every year on municipal email systems.

What if we replaced the 10K individual systems with one shared email infrastructure modeled on Yahoo! Mail or Microsoft Hotmail?  It’s certainly technically feasible and we’d end up with a system that would cost a fraction of the $2.5B to operate but that would have greater redundancy, reliability, and security than most of the organizations enjoy today.

I’ve heard Bob make this compelling argument for collaboration before but this time I understood there was an opportunity to share best practices, not just the assets themselves. For email, it starts with something as simple as a consistent naming convention like that makes life more consistent and easier for all users. Of course, it makes things easier for spammers as well but with a shared infrastructure there are more resources to fight the problem and, like with virus protection, an outbreak of spam caught in one jurisdiction could instantly inoculate everyone else. This notion is why, despite Herculean efforts from my IT staff, my personal Yahoo! email consistency receives less spam than my corporate account.

Now, imagine what this might mean for more complex applications like strategic planning, performance-based budgeting, or operations. Not sure how to streamline park maintenance? Find out what initiatives other cities have undertaken and learn from their miscues.  Want to know how much it should cost on average to maintain a mile of freeway? Voila! An entire database of actual values that can be analyzed by geography, weather conditions, or dozens of other factors. The possibilities to share best practices are virtually endless.

I suppose there would be some initial upfront costs that might dissuade organizations from sharing their infrastructure but I imagine that the real barrier to adoption of this idea is politics. Not the political parties per se, but the aversion to change that is rampant in the public sector – especially local government. It turns out that Bob Hanson addresses these concerns in a recent article in Government Technology Magazine. While I agree with his recommendations on how to approach the differing concerns of employees, managers, and policy makers, I think it helps to have someone as passionate about collaboration as Bob is.

If you don’t work for a public sector organization, you might be wondering how this affects you personally. Well, I don’t know about you but I don’t get all of the services from my local government that I would like and most of them cost more than I think they should. What if your community began to collaborate with others around it?  Would that keep property taxes from increasing every year?  In Northern CA which has dozens of physically adjacent cities that are independently run, I can’t help but think that a single shared police force or firefighting network could provide much better protection at lower costs.

While it’s too late for any of us to invent the Internet, we can help reinvent our local governments. But it’s probably not going to happen through career politicians; we the citizens must demand it. We must get involved.

And that’s another inconvenient truth.

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