Government is the largest and perhaps most important sector, but for too long it has been neglected by technology. Nearly every other field has experienced an explosion of growth and creativity in recent decades, yet state and local government remains comparatively untapped. In the coming decade, this will change as new technologies that foster transparency, efficiency and intelligence are developed.
The public sector today looks a bit like the consumer industry of 1995 and the enterprise space in 2005: it is at the beginning of a large-scale digital metamorphosis. The net result will be years of saved time, better decisions and stronger communities.
Here are five trends that will define this transformation in the coming decade:
- Real-time operations
Many industries in the global economy already operate in real time. Streams of data inform businesses about everything from their manufacturing and supply chains to their customer profiles and spending habits. Companies with up-to-date data at their fingertips can address small problems before they become big problems. Even individuals benefit from real-time data. Mint.com, for instance, allows people to see and manage their personal finances in real time.
Governments are different. They often access accurate data only on a monthly or quarterly basis, even though they make critical decisions every day. This will change with software deployments that help governments unleash and use current data to make more informed decisions about how they can allocate public resources effectively.
- Smarter cities
Studies on human migration patterns indicate that more people are moving to cities. By 2025, an estimated 60% of the world’s population will live in an urban centre. High rates of urbanization will force cities to use their existing resources more efficiently. Networked infrastructures – including roads, phone lines, cable networks, satellites and the internet – will be important parts of the solution to this challenge.
Cities around the world are already seizing the opportunities presented by information technology to connect disparate networks. For example, MIT and Copenhagen recently collaborated on an electric-hybrid bike wheel that monitors pollution, road conditions and traffic. The wheel allows cities to monitor their environments at a level that was previously unfeasible with cheap sensors and manual labour, offering a quantum leap in networking capability without using further human or capital resources. Other connected networks could include RFID chips on rubbish bins to monitor collection, transponders on toll-booths to measure throughput, and sensors on parking spaces to cut the time it takes to park and the resulting congestion.
- Increased citizen engagement
Smart networks are wonderful things, but cities need to guard themselves against making efficiency a sacred cow. There is inherent tension between the ideals of democracy and efficiency, between the openness of platforms that encourage engagement and centralized systems. Rather than focus solely on making everything smart, cities will have to focus on slowing down and improving the quality of life.
These considerations will cause cities to increase citizen engagement. Transparency is a subset of this goal. Open data platforms, such as data.gov and data.gov.uk, host troves of machine-readable government information that allow communities to target and solve problems for which governments do not have the bandwidth. Crowdfunding platforms, such as neighbor.ly, allow citizens to participate in the civic process by enabling them to invest in local capital projects. These types of civic tech platforms will continue to grow, and they will be vital to the health of future democracies.
- 21st-century reporting software for governments
The information technology that powers government is notoriously antiquated. Many parliamentary platforms have code-bases that haven’t been updated in a generation. Pulling data from most governments’ accounting systems can be a bit like pulling teeth. These technical blockades prevent governments from quickly disseminating information, collaborating on projects and comparing themselves against other governments.
New reporting technology, such as the system from OpenGov, will automatically pull and display data from governments’ accounting systems. These capabilities empower employees to find information in seconds that would have previously taken hours, days or even weeks to find. They will expand inter-departmental collaboration on core functions, such as budgeting. And they will also allow governments to compare themselves with other governments. In the next decade, advanced reporting software will save billions of dollars by streamlining processes, improving decisions and offering intelligent insights across the expenditure spectrum.
- Inter-governmental communication
The internet was conceived as a knowledge-sharing platform. Over the past few decades, technologists have developed tools such as Google and Wikipedia to aid the flow of information on the web and enable ever greater knowledge sharing. Today, you can find nearly any piece of information in a matter of seconds. Governments, however, have not benefited from the rapid development of such tools for their industry, and most information sharing still occurs offline, over email, or on small chat forums. Tools designed specifically for government data will allow governments to embrace the inherent knowledge-sharing infrastructure of the internet.
When this happens, governments will not only be able to share information but services as well. In the current system, vendors benefit from an information asymmetry; only they know how much they charge other governments for their goods and services. When governments can see into other governments’ expenses, it will level the playing field. Governments will be able to negotiate for better prices on the goods and services that they procure.
Public administrators face innumerable decisions on a regular basis that affect the well-being of their citizens and communities. They are stewards of public money, responsible for allocating it to the community’s priorities. For a technologist, helping government officials in their work presents many challenges, including complicated operating environments, legacy systems and difficult procurement. The rewards of re-imagining key enterprise workflows, contributing to an improved public administration and building a company that will strengthen society is well worth it.
Author: Zac Bookman, CEO and co-founder of OpenGov
Image: Pedestrians walk across Westminster Bridge in front of the Houses of Parliament in London June 11, 2009. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor