With most city budgets covered in red ink, local leaders are desperate to cut spending. As most officials want to avoid cutting staff, a common target for cuts are investments that are perceived to be unnecessary or wasteful – such as technology projects. While there certainly been examples of technology boondoggles (in both the public and private sectors), such cuts in IT might actually cost governments more than they save.
When properly conceived, planned and implemented – new IT projects and upgrades can help governments increase productivity and save money. In Seattle, a newly launched website provides the public redacted police reports that are linked to a map of crime incidents. The new tool, which cost the city $350,000, frees up hours of police staff time (which is expensive) that used to be dedicated to responding to public requests for official police reports. Furthermore, the tool not only makes it easier for the public to get at the reports, but the police force itself. The system also has the ability to include other types of data (like 911 calls, and animal control reports), meaning it will likely continue to provide future returns on investment.
Aside from new IT projects, changes and updates to existing systems can help reduce waste. San Francisco and Corpus Christi, Texas has pushed the adoption of open source software to lower its costs. And cities like Los Angeles and Orlando, Florida have also saved money by outsourcing their email to cloud providers like Google.
Of course, technology isn’t a panacea either. In New Orleans, where open government advocates have been pushing for better data, advocates have acknowledged that no amount of IT investment will make up for broken business processes. And technology projects can go sour. In an effort to clamp down on poorly conceived and managed IT projects in the federal government, the White House has recently asked all federal agencies to submit their IT plans for review.
That said, government investment in IT (especially the sort done at the city level) can still provide a lot of benefits – and is something the public supports. A recent survey by Google and the Clarus Research Group also shows that 92 percent of the public believe that governments can save money and be more efficient through increased use of technology. As such, city leaders might be better off demonstrating to their constituents how they plan to leverage technology investments to help balance budgets in the long term, rather than eliminating money for new IT projects in the short term.