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Disruptive Public Technology and the Need to Embrace It

Local-government officials are sometimes overwhelmed by new and improved digital tools. But they need to be open to technology that can help residents and public employees deliver critical services.

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Potentially disruptive technologies are now arriving at the doorstep of city hall more frequently, and with more force, than ever before. Local-government officials can become overwhelmed by the constant unveiling of new digital approaches, viewing them as nonessential bells and whistles or as disturbances that can make matters of governance worse.

This past year, for example, has brought breakthroughs that enhanced applications of digital twinning, tools that use data to build simulations predicting how a process or mechanism will perform; increased the utility of Internet of Things devices that our infrastructure and other local systems increasingly rely on; and elevated public-sector applications of artificial intelligence, including generative AI like the much-discussed ChatGPT.

The future is bright for technology that protects residents on streets and sidewalks, helps cover the gaps in the public-sector workforce and mitigates disaster risk in coastal areas. Yet the understandable tendency of a mayor, procurement officer or mid-level manager is to greet these tech developments with a heavy dose of skepticism and focus on their potential barriers, often concluding that the time, risk or distraction mitigate against early adoption.

But even as advocates for data-smart approaches, we would argue against making a tech-adoption decision based on a specific technology. Instead, officials should ask what ways new technology can drive value, as measured by the principles of a truly smart city explored in an earlier article. Technology is only important in the context of the problems government needs to address.

One of us (Goldsmith) is reminded of a time decades ago when, as the prosecutor for Marion County, Ind., he faced an early technology-adoption choice. As a result of data matches and improved online searches, the office’s child support collections for mothers receiving public assistance had increased from $900,000 to $38 million a year. But because of this rapid increase, the phone lines were overwhelmed with questions. Many of them — such as “when is my court date?” or “when will I receive my check?” — had straightforward answers.

As the prosecutor’s office, overwhelmed by the call volume, considered becoming one of the first public entities to have what we would now call a bot answer calls and provide information, many argued that the technology was too new and that its clients, who were disproportionately poor, wouldn’t use the automated solution. This view was both patronizing and too oriented around the technology and not the customer. The day the system was turned on, it handled some 6,000 calls from people who would otherwise have had long hold times, their time wasted until beleaguered public employees could get to them.

So, what criteria should local governments apply as they consider newly presented technology? The threshold question should start with benchmarking the status quo and asking, “Are we satisfied with the quality and the equity of current service delivered?”

The definition from our smart-cities article provides a framework against which to determine whether a new disruptive digital response is worth the investment. A few examples from that framework:

Does it focus on the needs of residents? Dramatic developments in user interface design, user experience technology and service platforms can greatly benefit residents. Layan Ammouri, who serves as the policy director for a member of the Multnomah County, Ore., commission, was concerned about resident access to benefits based on feedback from local community meetings. Ammouri tried visiting the websites and application portals required by different agencies to apply for various benefits. In so doing, she realized the difficulty in even finding the right web page, much less filling out an application. As if each benefit did not present enough complexity on its own, the various programs with individual applications compounded the burdens on hard-pressed local residents. So Ammouri sought out technology with the best user interface that helped reduce repetitive questions and multiple applications. She settled on a turnkey solution where a vendor provided an intuitive front end for residents and an automated processing module to simplify the processing for county employees.

Does it make public employees smarter in their work? Just as the call bot in Indiana freed child support employees to focus on the more complex work of helping parents in need, the substantive work of the prosecutor’s office and the new generative artificial intelligence products can assist public-sector employees with their efforts. For example, in a 2021 pilot the United Kingdom’s National Archives tested five different AI tools to see if they could help employees overwhelmed by the sheer “volume, diversity, complexity and distributed nature of departmental digital records,” finding that AI could be “successfully applied to aid the task of records selection.” The introduction of such tools does necessitate additional data and AI literacy as well as decision literacy so that public employees will feel comfortable effectively utilizing AI as a tool.

Does it address equity, sustainability and resiliency? Local governments are on the front lines of addressing and mitigating climate change-related disasters, migration and health issues. City officials would be wise to include these concerns in any assessment of new technology. Advances in digital twinning, data modeling and spatial analytics facilitate preventative interventions. Carlos Martín, the project director of the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, recently spoke to us about the ways individual homes in the U.S. disproportionately contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for roughly a quarter of them. One way to understand and mitigate this problem with technology is on display in Washington, D.C., where city leaders are employing 24-hour IoT sensors to monitor ambient air quality and generate alerts, modeling the dangers that are often loaded on to families in more challenged neighborhoods. The city’s Department of Energy and Environment is taking that data and analyzing it over time to measure the effectiveness of different abatement strategies.

Every day, local officials face very practical challenges that fully occupy a day’s work. Considering new tech is not high on the list, but adoption can provide transformative breakthroughs. Weaving through this tension requires a clear-eyed evaluation of what it can accomplish. We suggest starting with the criteria of how it will tangibly improve neighborhoods while helping the people who live there and the public employees who serve them.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He can be reached at
Betsy Gardner is the editor of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University.
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