I've been involved with local government for 30 years, and I've spent much of that time trying to identify technologies that would help to dramatically improve service delivery and lower costs. To some extent, everything has changed during those three decades. But if there's one thing I'm confident about, it's this: The advances of the past have only set the stage for ever more sweeping transformation.
Twenty-five years ago, as a young district attorney in Indianapolis, I wanted our office to lead the country in child support enforcement; it turned out that putting a few smart public employees in a room and giving them access to a wide variety of local and state data would help us increase collections from $900,000 a year to $38 million. We followed with "JUSTIS," the country's first totally integrated criminal justice system, which improved results by coupling cross-agency, easily accessible data with clear system-level metrics.
Then, soon after I became the city's mayor, we launched an early effort to offer online services, giving it the then-radical-sounding title of "EGOV." Its goal was to use technology to configure service delivery around the user, not the government.
Those approaches may not sound particularly radical now. To a large degree, they have become ingrained in government at all levels. But in reality, we've just begun to tap the potential of technology to transform the way the public sector does business by harnessing the power of data-informed public employees, systemically shared information and resident responsive governance. Here are some ideas for some of the kinds breakthroughs we could be seeing as early as the coming year:
Open data: Cities will branch out into the role of data facilitator, structuring more cross-sector strategic data-sharing arrangements that enable systemic visualizations, interventions and resource alignment. Implementation of standards for both internal and public facing data will create opportunities for this kind of information sharing in addition to cross-jurisdiction access.
Virtual assistants and artificial intelligence: 2017 will be a year of major improvements in the use of bots to assist residents and public employees; for evidence of this, just consider private-sector advances with virtual assistants such as Siri and Alexa. Chatbots will help 311 call centers through the use of cognitive learning and natural language tools. AI will provide decision support services to employees who are in the field struggling with complex questions, bolstering civic work on the front lines as well as in government offices.
Machine-to-machine communication: Bridges whose sensors ask for help, water pipes where pressure changes identify a leak and streetlights that signal when they are about to burn out all will change the definition of responsiveness. Using sensors to inform proactive repairs and provide real-time data should become more than just experimental in 2017 as Internet of Things technologies progress.
Personalization: Cities will provide more personalized services, allowing residents to register for specially configured information, whether about traffic or the hours of a neighborhood park. More and more, citizens will receive convenient texts or email notices when they need to renew a permit or pay a traffic ticket. Using pictures as well as text, public employees will respond directly to service requests, telling citizens when and how they resolved their issues.
Predictive analytics: Cities will increase their use of predictive analytics as a means of achieving better targeted and preemptive interventions in areas including infrastructure, public health and public safety. Municipal governments will go from solving limited issues with analytics to identifying outliers in a broad range of circumstances, from restaurant inspections to building code enforcement. These analytics will create new efficiencies in many city services by better pairing intervention with need.
Secure data sharing: Experiments using "blockchain," a highly secure distributed cryptography technology best known for its use in tracking the bitcoin digital currency, will enable anonymous data sharing among agencies, governments and industry as well as easier authentication of public documents and secure digital signatures. Such signatures, coupled with message encryption, will allow for sharing of structured data in ways that distribute verifiable critical public information while keeping private information masked.
Distributed governance: New technologies and open data will continue to act as an amplifier of government employees' and citizens' capacities, both physical and cognitive, and as a digital facilitator for learning, sharing and co-production. Distributed problem-solving will increase the co-creation of policy and services.
As all of this plays out in 2017 and beyond, we may find that technology now allows more transformative disruption than the existing institutions of government can absorb. But it seems a fair bet that 2017 will be a year in which the absorption rate dramatically increases.