4 Tech Trends Changing How Cities Operate

A recent survey reveals how local governments are using technology (both new and old) to engage citizens and improve performance.
by | December 8, 2014

Louis Brandeis famously characterized states as laboratories for democracy, but cities could be called labs for innovation or new practices. With far fewer resources than states or the federal government and responsibilities to people on a daily basis, cities have to be scrappy and creative when it comes to delivering services and running their operations. Having less to spend and fewer workers means cities try to automate where possible. And because more people deal with city government directly -- whether it’s sending their kids to public schools, riding public transit or having their trash picked up -- the need to perform effectively has far greater importance.

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When Government Technology magazine (produced by Governing’s parent company, e.Republic, Inc.) published its annual Digital Cities Survey, the results provided an interesting look at how local governments are using technology to improve how they deliver services, increase production and streamline operations.

Cities, ranging in population size from 50,000 to more than one million, participated in the survey and provided details about some of their important technology projects. The results showed that many cities are using or expect to use a wide range of advanced software tools, technology practices and computer systems to handle dozens of needs. But the survey also showed four technology trends changing how local government operates and serves its citizens:

1. Open Data

Transparency in local government can arguably be traced back to the late 1960s when the state of California passed the Public Records Act, which required municipalities to disclose government records to the public. But the concept has exploded in recent years thanks to technology, which has made it easier to open up data collected by cities and make it freely accessible to the public.

Big cities were the first to open up their data and gained national attention for their transparency. New York City, which passed an open data law in 2012, leads all cities with more than 1,300 data sets open to the public; Chicago started opening up data to the public in 2010 following an executive order and is second among cities with more than 600; and San Francisco, which was the first major city to open the doors to transparency in 2009, had the highest score from the U.S. Open Data Census for the quality of its open data.

But the survey shows that a growing number of mid-sized jurisdictions are now getting involved, too. Tacoma, Wash., has a portal with 40 data sets that show how the city is spending tax dollars on public works, economic development, transportation and public safety. Ann Arbor, Mich., has a financial transparency tool that reveals what the city is spending on a daily basis, in some cases.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has made transparency one of the major components of her administration, said that open data in financial matters improves performance and citizens who have access to the information are more informed and are ready to discuss the issues in detail during public forums. “They appreciate being able to give their feedback on the current problems we face,” she said.

2. 'Stat' Programs and Data Analytics

Using technology to improve the performance of city government is not new, but two concepts are spreading with meaningful results.

First, the so-called “stat” programs are proliferating. Started by the New York Police Department in the 1980s, CompStat was a management technique that merged data with staff feedback to drive better performance by police officers and precinct captains. Its success led to many imitations over the years and, as the digital survey shows, stat programs continue to grow in importance. For example, Louisville has used its “LouieStat” program to cut the city’s bill for unscheduled employee overtime by $23 million as well as to spot weaknesses in performance.

Second, cities are increasing their use of data analytics to measure and improve performance. Denver, Jacksonville, Fla., and Phoenix have launched programs that sift through data sets to find patterns that can lead to better governance decisions. Los Angeles has combined transparency with analytics to create an online system that tracks performance for the city’s economy, service delivery, public safety and government operations that the public can view. Robert J. O’Neill Jr., executive director of the International City/County Management Association, said that both of these tech-driven performance trends “enable real-time decision-making.” He argued that public leaders who grasp the significance of these new tools can deliver government services that today's constituents expect.

3. Online Citizen Engagement

Citizen engagement may not sound like a tech trend, but the survey revealed that cities are embracing social media tools and online survey programs to interact with citizens in new and innovative ways. This is especially true among smaller jurisdictions. Avondale, Ariz., population 78,822, is engaging citizens with a mobile app and an online forum that solicits ideas that other residents can vote up or down.

In Westminster, Colo., population 110,945, a similar forum allows citizens to vote online about community ideas and gives rewards to users who engage with the online forum on a regular basis (free passes to a local driving range or fitness program). Cities are promoting more engagement activities to combat a decline in public trust in government. The days when a public meeting could provide citizen engagement aren’t enough in today’s technology-dominated  world. That’s why social media tools, online surveys and even e-commerce rewards programs are popping up in cities around the country to create high-value interaction with its citizens.

4. Geographic Information Systems 

Supporting these new trends is an old technology that has taken on renewed importance in recent years. Geographic information systems (GIS) -- computer systems that can store, manipulate and analyze spatial or geographical information -- have been around since the 1970s, but as these powerful mapping tools have become cheaper and easier to use, they have also become more widespread and beneficial. Cities now use them to analyze financial decisions to increase performance, support public safety, improve public transit, run social service activities and, increasingly, engage citizens about their city’s governance.

Augusta, Ga., won an award for its well-designed and easy-to-use transit maps. Sugar Land, Texas, uses GIS to support economic development and, as part of its citizen engagement efforts, to highlight its capital improvement projects. GIS is now used citywide by 92 percent of the survey respondents. That’s significant because GIS has long been considered a specialized (and expensive) technology primarily for city planning and environmental projects.

Cities continue to invest in core technologies, such as security, data centers, networks and IT staff. With budgets tight in many jurisdictions, city leaders will have to prioritize carefully what’s important when it comes to digital services. Despite the ongoing fiscal constraints, cities continue to find creative ways to use technology -- both new and old -- that brings government and citizens closer together, while improving the overall value of its work.