Cities and the Big Payoff for Digital Transformation

Albuquerque has made a lot of progress in recent years. There are lessons in how it jumped to near the top of the rankings.
September 12, 2018
City Hall plaza in Albuquerque, N.M.
Civic plaza in Albuquerque, N.M. (Flickr/David Swinney)
By Richard Berry  |  Contributor
Former mayor of Albuquerque
By Peter Ambs  |  Contributor
An assistant Phoenix chief information officer and former Albuquerque CIO

In our global economy, every city is competing for jobs and talent. A smart-city strategy is essential to support the next-century workforce and drive economic opportunity for everyone. That's why cities across the country are striving to become digitally advanced. It's not just a trend, it's a race.

But what does it mean, and how do you get there?

From 2010 through 2017, Albuquerque climbed the Center for Digital Government's Digital Cities Survey rankings until it hit the No. 2 spot for cities with a population of 500,000 or more -- just behind Los Angeles and ahead of many recognized tech hubs. Albuquerque made the top 10 list for five years running.

Every city is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all formula for digital transformation, but there are strategies that can lead cities in the right direction. Here is how we did it in Albuquerque:

Commitment: We committed to being smart in using technology and creating conditions for innovation. Internally, we were clear about improving obsolete business systems that were creating a drag on service delivery, and we bolstered a culture centered on improving connections between residents and City Hall. Externally, we demonstrated to residents that digital advancement was not simply about pursuing the latest fad but about improving their quality of life.

Talent: So much of what we call "good government" is about the day-to-day work that leads to a return on taxpayer dollars. To achieve that level of service delivery, we invested in our hard-working employees. We hired, promoted and fostered talented professionals, and focused on giving them adequate resources to do their jobs well. We also provided opportunities to engage in workforce and professional development. When needed, we brought in outside vendors to augment our capabilities.

Data infrastructure: Sustainable digital advancement is built on a foundation of data-informed decisions and a long-term commitment to resourcing the effort. Data makes the biggest impact when it is shared, so we migrated away from paper-based systems and enabled departments to transform into open-data-producing systems. We also knew that transparency drives perception of government, so we worked with Bloomberg Philanthropies' What Works Cities initiative to launch ABQ Data, where we share municipal data with residents.

By applying these three principles, the Albuquerque team accomplished much. We automated much of our service delivery, saved staff time and increased productivity. Most importantly, we enhanced interactions between the government and the community. A few examples:

• Improvements to our online and mobile platforms allowed residents to obtain building permits, licensing and business registrations without having to trek to a government building.

• A mobile reporting app for the Police Department empowered residents to report non-emergency crimes using their smartphones, thereby reducing 911 calls and freeing up officers to focus on emergency situations.

• A new ABQ311 app made it possible to report issues, apply for city jobs, communicate with elected officials, find out when a bus is coming, and even report a child who may be in danger -- all online and from smartphones.

There are now more than 30 mobile apps for city functions and more than 50 online services that complement the built and lived environment. In short, we created government on demand, or to put it another way, we built a GAAS -- government as a service platform.

To facilitate ongoing progress, we left office with several projects in flight. These included a smart LED street-lighting project in which each pole will be a potential data-gathering system, an application for mobile-device fare collection on our upcoming bus rapid transit line, and parking meters with mobile pay features.

Because of these efforts, Albuquerque is in a better position to take advantage of sensor-based networks that can enhance service delivery, such as sending staff to empty city trash bins only when they're full. This newly acquired data will also help achieve major municipal goals, such as improving air quality and saving water through better irrigation methods.

But the impact of digital transformation goes beyond making services more efficient or making progress on environmental issues. By building these digital platforms and encouraging residents to use them to disrupt and redefine governments' core functions, local government is itself improved. That's a win for everyone, and well worth the effort.