The most important work of any public sector internal services group is to create and re-create organizational purpose, articulating how it will support the service delivery activities of the external-facing agencies in the most cost-effective manner. This is not simply the approval of an agency mission statement, nor is it a task done once and then left for future generations to mull over and reflect upon.
With the rapid advancement in technology and in the rising expectations of the citizenry, the creation of purpose is a perpetual obligation. Tying this purpose to data-driven performance metrics and reporting on these metrics in a public forum for citizens, employees and IT personnel to review and evaluate provides essential feedback necessary for performance improvement, something that is so often lacking in public services.
But is this really the limit of service that IT can provide to a municipality, county, or state?
In IT, there are many services where the differences do not make a difference. A telephone’s dial tone is the classic example; there are others. For instance, a MB of storage on an IBM disk array is indiscernible to the end user from the HP array. Without using a tool like trace route, a ping is a ping is a ping.
But there are IT services that are essential to the delivery of the service to the citizen. The systems developed to process utility consumption and payment, the computer aided dispatch solutions for the police and fire departments or the systems that support the planning and zoning activities of a municipality are but a few examples where, if the system is down, the service is either unavailable or significantly handicapped.
Besides the online access, these services are transparent to the end user. The information specialists with police, fire dispatch, the utility customer service team or the planning and zoning committee use the IT services to deliver their service to the citizen.
Here’s my question: Does the quality of the IT service make a direct difference to the citizen? In a larger context, do people make decisions on where to live or locate a business or build houses because of the quality of the municipal service? Are there IT services which could be offered that would enhance the resident’s experience to the point where they would chose to live in one community over another?
When I was the CTO for the City of Denton, Texas, the mayor asked us to consider establishing a community Wi-Fi network. It was his contention that Wi-Fi could be a differentiator for residents, businesses looking to relocate or builders looking to develop property. I disagreed, and here’s the analogy I gave him:
When I’m attending a conference, I try and pick a hotel based on where the rate is acceptable, whether it’s nearby, and sometimes when there are multiple options, I see if they offer free breakfast. Sometimes I like grabbing a roll as I rush out the door, as long as I don’t have to pay for it.
What I would not consider is if they offer free Wi-Fi. I tend to assume there is some kind of Internet service available wherever I stay, but rarely do I expect that free Wi-Fi be a given, and I definitely do not make my decision on where to stay on whether there is a charge for using it. The IT service simply doesn’t matter.
Be it development, residency or the selection of a hotel, everything is dependent upon location, location, location. When our leadership changed in Denton, it was the philosophy that municipal services do not make a difference and that our goal should be to provide the minimal amount of service necessary at the absolute lowest possible cost to the taxpayer. It was only the cost that mattered, not the quality of the municipal service.
Even those services we provided during the May tornados in Oklahoma (see: my previous blog) I do not feel were really big differentiators. They were helpful to residents and to responders, but I don’t know that I would qualify them as impact tools to citizens. They got a lot of use, and several good stories on people being reunited with pets or items they’d lost, but it really came down to the community itself, not the services IT provided. It was good we were there; we eased some of the problems and pains, but overall we really didn’t make a big difference.
I’d like to know if anyone out there in the municipal or county or state environment has identified an IT service which truly makes a difference directly to their citizens. Perhaps our mission is to support those directly providing the service, and our challenge is how to make the services more convenient or cost efficient, or perhaps not. I’m curious to see how much a free breakfast means to you.
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