Monday, April 20, 2009

Government's Duty to Make “IT” Matter

Does government owe a duty to taxpayers to implement technological solutions that make it more efficient?

Each election season is in one respect very similar to all the others: we hear rhetoric on improving government, shrinking government, raising governmental accountability, and various variations on that variety of verbiage. We also hear a tremendous amount of discussion of homeland security, military spending and budget deficits. Lately, there are growing concerns about the impending retirement of about 60% of the federal workforce, and a similar concern is probably facing most state agencies.

Now we have an extended economic squeeze on state and local governments and record projected budget deficits in many of them. There will be pressure to cut spending everywhere and lay off government employees—even teachers—to balance budgets regardless of the impact on services to and for constituents.

In tough economic times, the private business sector continuously seeks new, innovative ways to squeeze more productivity out of resources and processes. Can we expect the same from governments? Will wide-spread, major budgetary and employment pressures finally be what it takes to revamp the way government employees at all levels do their jobs?

Tale of Two Cities

Not too long ago, a television reporter investigating neighborhood code enforcement in the Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, metropolitan area commented that of the 10 area municipalities she had contacted, only two were able to generate a list of “worst offending residential properties” from their data systems. The reporter seemed in disbelief.

The reporter’s efforts to turn over a few rocks, figuratively speaking, and shed light on the property owners who cause the most distress to their neighbors as well as the perception of lack of enforcement actions by the municipalities—including Dallas and Fort Worth hit a stone wall. She inadvertently shined a light on something the public is increasingly questioning: technological inefficiencies in government business processes.

The two cities that could list the “worst offenders” got more than good publicity out of the story. After the initial news story, one property owner promptly cleaned up his act while the other city revitalized and completed its pre-demolition process to remove a dangerous and unsightly structure. Both cities moved a serious offender off its list and undoubtedly sent a message to those in the “next worst offender” category. Taxpayers benefited.

Tackling Two Questions

Taxpayers who hear stories like this ask two questions: “With all the tools widely available, why are they not at work in our local water department, code enforcement, county attorney or state human services departments?” and “Would it really matter to me as a taxpayer anyway?”

The first answer may be as simple as attitude. “We’ve always done it this way,” may still rule the offices where data is religiously entered into systems that do not give it back in usable form. There also may be a bit of ignorance at play. People who do not even understand spreadsheet software will certainly not see the benefits of relational databases over paper files.

As for the second question, it does matter because this is government waste at its most personal level—it affects you and me, the consumer-taxpayers. Agencies that waste time and money cost us more in the long run than if they installed the proper information processing tools for our government employees. They waste our time when we have to stand in a line to conduct a simple information exchange that could be done electronically as much as they waste their staff resource time by having employees process information in outdated systems that do not meet their needs. They squander millions on projects that are designed to keep everyone doing things the way they have always been done.

During an investigation several years ago, our team presented the agency with a harsh picture of how contractors could deliberately steal millions of taxpayer dollars by taking advantage of one known weakness in the system: the lack of communication, coordination and data integration between offices of the same agency. These silver-tongued businessmen knew that staff in one regional office were completely disconnected from those of the next nearest regional office, so they were able to plot their fraudulent systems and nearly get away with it.

Government is different.

There are many reasons that government offices do not function exactly as private businesses. Private sector businesses ultimately survive only by making a profit: they have to eventually generate more money than they spend doing so. If costs of doing business rise, businesses must either increase prices, reduce consumption, or otherwise trim costs to maintain the profit. Survival demands it.

Non-profit organizations have similar requirements for survival. When financially stressed, these businesses get busy raising revenues or cutting costs so that they can carry on with their missions. If revenues rise, so can services. The will to survive keeps successful private businesses continually searching for revenues that meet or exceed costs.Survival for a government agency is typically not conditioned on profitability (though the quality and quantity of services—and consequently taxpayer satisfaction levels—are certainly affected by revenues).

Because governments must provide certain services and functions, whether or not profitable, the pervasive attitude may be “we don’t have to upgrade because it does not increase our funding.” Plus, the political risks of mistakes when investing in technological solutions (short term effects) are higher than the potential return on the investment over time (long term effects). Many terms of office are shorter than typical large technology projects!

ROI= Reducing Obvious Inefficiencies

A long term “return on investment” mentality should guide state, county, and municipal governments into re-thinking their strategies for managing information and delivering services. Commercial, off-the-shelf software is available to help them manage growing workloads without expanding staff. Moving processes from paper to electronic systems means speed and effectiveness go up. That translates to efficiency. More efficiency, means costs of services go down, collections go up, “losses” are reduced, and taxpayer satisfaction grows. Who knows? Maybe taxes could go down as well!

Taxpayers want the government agencies to be effective and efficient in every way that touches their lives. Computer systems that are old, inflexible, unsatisfactory, and a hindrance to efficiency and accountability have to go. Inefficient and ineffective office systems also negatively affect hiring. Who wants to work in an office that stubbornly refuses to modernize and for significantly less pay than most comparable private sector jobs?

The days of “I’m sorry, it’s in the computer and we can’t change that even if it is wrong” should be over for everyone. In place of these circa 1975 systems, we should see more circa 2000 systems at the least, circa 2010 systems at best. There is no technological obstacle, for example, to a single information management system for the whole county government where the courts, legal department, human services, and physical operations are connected, sharing only the data they need from each other, yet efficiently maintaining centralized records so that code enforcement, police & fire, tax appraisal and assessment, and other offices can update the records for each tract, ensuring the most current information when needed.

Rays of Hope

There are signs of awakening. Even before the current economic crisis, Minneapolis, MN, announced a project to enable its City Attorney’s offices to pull data from numerous sources around the county and state when needed for a civil or criminal matter. When a person is charged with a crime, for example, the prosecutor will receive an automated notification of the first hearing date within minutes and can then instantly pull into one screen the most recent digital color “mug shot,” criminal record, driver’s license data, and the underlying police incident report, creating a “document” that does not exist until it is printed. Citizens can run their own reports on crime and other public statistics by neighborhood—right from the City’s web site.

Counties have begun to procure single, comprehensive criminal justice software systems rather than separate software for each office. Some municipal utility departments use electronic tags and wirelessly gathering data from usage meters and monitoring devices and feed it into an account file for each monitoring station for billing or quality assurance tracking. Several police and parking enforcement departments use hand-held devices to issue citations and wirelessly record them in the city’s court records system automatically.

Software currently available "off the shelf" can track the minute factual details gathered in arson investigations, electronically audit contractor invoices and adjust them when they do not comply with an agency’s billing practices, and plot not only results obtained by staff, but the future impact on agency resources if regulatory changes are effected.

Perhaps the day is not far away where that investigative reporter can get the list of “worst offenders” in her community from an online database. Or, due to better tools in the hands of those same public servants, that list would be so short it would not be interesting to her in the first place.

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