IBM Report Says New Technology Will Dramatically Improve City Services

A new report out from the IBM Center for the Business of Government examines a dozen cities across the United States that have award-winning reputations for using innovation and technology to improve the services they provide to their residents. Written by Sherri Greenberg, Clinical Professor in Public Policy Practice in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and a former Texas State Legislator, the report IDs trends in local government, findings on how cities are implementing these new technologies, and actions cities can take to enhance their innovation capabilities.

The upshot? Change is in the air for local governments.

With federal dysfunction and limited state budgets, cities are coming up with new ways to better serve their residents -- who are demanding that cities improve current services and technologies with greater efficiency. According to McKinsey Global Institute research, 259 large U.S. cities (metropolitan areas with at least 150,000 people) generated almost 85 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 2010, and 80 percent of the U.S. population resides in large cities. Based on this research, six findings are shared:

  • Finding One: Cities need new governing structures for innovation.

Innovation efforts can reside in existing departments or an office of innovation and can be established in order to fit the needs of the city and its residents. The personnel in these offices may report directly to a mayor or city manager, but a hierarchy is important in order to make necessary changes. Many cities have created new staff roles, such as chief innovation officer or chief data officer. Currently, at least 19 U.S. cities have an innovation officer and at least eight cities have a data officer or a similar title.

  • Finding Two: Cities need new funding and partnering arrangements.

Cities must develop not only the personnel who can implement innovation, but also a sustainability plan. The plan should identify funding and infrastructure and should be incorporated into the city’s strategic planning. Nationwide, cities seeking to improve service delivery are partnering with a broad array of entities, including foundations and other nonprofits, universities, and start-up companies. The city of Riverside, for example, engages in a formal employee exchange with Xerox. City employees are embedded in Xerox, and Xerox employees are embedded in the city government. Through these partnerships, companies gain insight into the challenges faced by cities, and cities are able to better use the technologies that companies develop.

  • Finding Three: Cities are leveraging existing technology initiatives to make data more accessible.

Cities are creating and using accessible, exportable open data, and providing this information to individuals, businesses, and community groups to improve city services and promote economic development, transparency and accountability. Cities are using hackathons and challenges—competitions open to the public focused on developing new technologies that can promote public engagement and improve city services. A great example of a robust open data portal is in San Francisco, called DataSF, which has a developer page and resources, with tips on API use and submitting apps. The site has a showcase that displays numerous apps that developers have created using the city’s data. The City of Riverside also has a great transparency data portal called Engage Riverside, which includes city records and open data.

  • Finding Four: Cities are increasing public engagement.

Cities are Using Crowdsourcing and Crowdfunding to collect information and/or funding about a topic or project. Crowdsourcing methods vary from Facebook and Twitter input to specialty software through which formal discussions are held online about specific policy or management questions. Crowdfunding uses online tools to request community-provided monetary support for an event or project. 

  • Finding Five: Cities are making performance data accessible.

Many cities are using performance tracking to evaluate and improve efficiency and effectiveness. More Cities are Using 3-1-1, a special phone number that connects individuals to nonemergency-based services. Increasingly, residents can access the phone number via the Internet and mobile devices, gaining digital and mobile access to services.  The goal of 3-1-1 is to actively engage constituents in monitoring and improving the city. Numerous Public Safety departments have developed databases and mobile apps for real-time event tracking, reporting activities, and recording incidence reports and response times. San Francisco is currently piloting a new disaster dashboard, the Appallicious emergency dashboard. The dashboard collects real time emergency response data from various departments and agencies and it links to local resources such as people with CPR training.

  • Finding Six: Cities are enhancing services to residents.

Sustainable city initiatives are increasing to encourage recycling, solar energy development, and walking. Cities have developed mobile apps for tracking energy, water, land, and municipal facility use, parking and transportation activity, and recycling and conservation efforts. Through the apps, residents are able to track their own activity, find car parking, and engage in and promote awareness and activism for sustainability. Cities are also working to make permit issuance easier by using apps that have the ability to identify, apply for, and track various types of permits.

Based on Greenberg’s findings, she offers up six actions that cities can take to enhance their innovation capability, including:

  • Looking for targets of opportunity
  • Building capacity
  • Seeking internal and external champions
  • Developing a compelling business case
  • Formalizing new practices with concrete laws and strategies
  • Fostering a culture of creativity and collaboration

To read Greenberg’s full report, including an in-depth analysis of local government trends, findings and actions, visit: 


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