Despite the traditional resistances, we are beginning to intensify our use of information technology to collaborate and gain economies of scale across government boundaries. Governments are both being pulled in this direction by the growing productivity offered by technology and pushed by the severe short- and long-term fiscal pressures they face at all levels.
Rather than resisting these forces, governments will be well advised to embrace and build on them. We can't leave dramatically more productive IT-based options unharvested. We can't afford to waste when we are truly in want.
To get a sense of the logic and benefits of these collaborations, consider four examples from a single state. Forced initially into seeking out economies by the collapse of the auto industry, Michigan has become a leader in IT-enhanced productivity. Starting with Gov. John Engler and continuing under Gov. Jennifer Granholm and now under Gov. Rick Snyder, the state has consistently pursued the benefits of IT consolidation and scale. To extend these benefits, Michigan is now focusing on collaborations with and among its counties and local governments as well as within the state and with the private sector.
Shared flyover photography and maps: To pay for flyover maps for such purposes as assessing property, emergency response, environmental regulation, recreation and transportation, the state's Shared Solutions & Technology Partnerships Program has developed a program with Microsoft to share costs with counties. The state can now buy flights at $40 per square mile (a 25-50 percent cost reduction), while local governments can buy in as partners at $28 per square mile (with the state picking up the remaining $12). The results are delivered via Web maps that the state and the counties can enhance with applications (such as "find a campsite") that gain a global presence through Microsoft's Bing search engine. The contract has been used since 2010 to photograph 48 of Michigan's 83 counties.
Shared GIS for enhanced 911: To enable emergency communications via any device and data format including video, the nation must dramatically enhance the original 911 system. The goal is an integrated nationwide emergency response system holding clean GIS data shared among multiple jurisdictions, applications and users. To get started in Michigan, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is supplying seed money matched by the state ($1.7 million each) to provide grants to localities and regions to update their 911 operations and tie them together so that they can supply and receive continually updated data.
Shared online payment systems: The goal here is to collect government bills electronically, reducing the hassle and costs of paper and making it easier to collect all that is owed. The partnerships are between participating governments and a new entity established by Oakland County called G2G Cloud Solutions. While private electronic-payment services also can be used to collect via credit cards and direct bank withdrawals, the fees charged have been a barrier for governments and many constituents. Oakland County is large enough to offer efficient networking, storage and processing, and - because of the savings the greater scale creates for its own collections and anticipated later collaborations - is willing to accept lower fees.
Shared Web development and hosting: Through G2G Cloud Solutions, Oakland County also offers Web hosting and development services to other jurisdictions. These cloud-based offerings are particularly attractive for smaller governments. In this case, G2G Cloud Solutions is again generating economies of scale to share with users who couldn't produce as cost-effectively for themselves.
Michigan is certainly not alone in pursuing these innovative collaborations. Multistate collaborations are also being organized, especially for payment systems and Web hosting. As the need for productivity improvement intensifies, more governments at all levels will find they have little choice but to join this movement. Too much is at stake. Much as Ben Franklin warned in another context, we must all hang together or we surely will hang separately.