A Real Opportunity for Cross-Boundary Digital Government

Our state, local and federal governments need to ramp up the sharing of technology and data beyond their enterprises.
April 27, 2016 AT 6:15 AM
Jerry Mechlin
By Jerry Mechling  |  Contributor
A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School

What we've called "cross-boundary digital government" for the last decade or so has focused on standardization for shared technology services among programs within state-, local- or federal-government enterprises. After all, we don't want 50 email systems or data centers or networks within a single jurisdiction or agency. We want the efficiency and effectiveness of just a few.

But a focus on technology within jurisdictions or enterprises stops short of the larger and truly government-wide opportunities. We need to take advantage of the new opportunities that will be available with the changes in administration that will follow this year's elections.

For many years now, jurisdictions and their agencies have been consolidating networks, data centers and applications such as enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management. But in a huge number of other cases, information and technology can also be shared among cities, among states, and indeed among the many programs that would benefit from better coordination across the extensive diversity of city, county, special district, state and federal boundaries. Grant programs, for example, including the oceanic flows of financial and other transactions involved in Medicare and Medicaid services, have required standardization to coordinate federal, state and local activities.

But too many efforts to improve the sharing of information and technology remain excessively fragmented and duplicative. Yes, Michigan and Illinois have collaborated to improve the scale and efficiency of their Medicaid and Medicare processing, with the data-center work now handled by Michigan. And yes, Oakland County, Mich., has worked with the state and with local entities to offer criminal justice, GIS and other cloud-based services to smaller jurisdictions. And yes, Ohio has crafted GIS programs and services that now benefit nearly all the state's 88 counties (and many other entities). But cross-boundary initiatives like these are few and far between. Relative to the size of the opportunity, we've done very little to standardize and collaborate on a government-wide basis.

It's true that we've made some progress on the "down and in" agenda, taking advantage of the hierarchical power of mayors, county executives, governors and the president to encourage and enforce collaboration among the agencies they are responsible for. But we've not done enough on standardization and scale that require "up and out" negotiation. Small governments -- which in the aggregate are huge in terms of the volume of employees and numbers of citizens they serve -- are still too dependent on the vendor community for standardized applications, getting little support from the other governments they might work with. Local governments in particular have not been very interested, largely because they they've felt successful enough using old methods and, even more important, worry about losing control to "outsiders."

All of this means we are not realizing economies from digital networks and software with enormous set-up costs that could be shared among larger communities of users. Even more important, it means we are losing the accountability and productivity that come when local activities and results can be readily compared to similar work at other times and places. It's easier to improve education, health care or garbage collection when performance and results can be measured and compared. These are business issues, not just technology issues.

Fortunately, the world has been changing. Even small governments have gotten more comfortable with using technology to reduce costs and improve services. These and other trends toward digital government will get a boost from this year's elections. Every election brings a window of opportunity as new administrations set up shop. If we are to take real advantage of a post-election 2017, however, we will need to be ready to move.

We first need to pull the right people together. We need to meld federal, state and local perspectives and insights. We need respected real-world practitioners, not just researchers and academics. We need transition teams, research institutions and governmental associations to identify, incentivize and prioritize actionable targets of opportunity. An effective government and society will need to rely much more on cross-boundary collaboration. A key priority now is to get ready for this on a government-wide basis.