Why CIOs and CTOs must take centre stage on digital planning

11th April 2018

By Dr Alan R. Shark*, Executive Director, Public Technology Institute, and Associate Professor, George Mason University Schar School of Policy & Government, USA

Most observers would agree that the term ‘smart cities’ is much more than a fad. Yet far fewer individuals would agree on a single definition as to what is meant by ‘smart cities’.

In the US, there are many communities striving to be recognised as ‘smart’. There are certainly many standouts: Boston, Seattle, Chicago, Kansas City, and San Francisco quickly come to mind. And let us not forget counties, such as Montgomery County (MD), Fairfax County (VA), and Miami-Dade (FL).

History reminds us that many ancient cities (think Athens and Rome) were ‘smart’ for only so long. It is, perhaps, safe to say that most smart city endeavours are more the sum of their parts with smart initiatives and applications leading the way. The smarter the initiatives and applications, the smarter the city appears.

Many, like myself, are more comfortable with first identifying the key elements of a smart city, which I have identified as:

  1. Smart transport.
  2. Smarter digital infrastructure (digitisation).
  3. Citizen engagement and digital citizen services.
  4. Smart, big, and visualised data.
  5. Sustainability.
  6. Public safety and resiliency.
  7. Healthcare services.
  8. Leadership and vision.
  9. Citizen satisfaction and quality of life.
  10. Economic vitality.

A smart city initiative is more of a quest and a journey than a stopping point

The smart city movement is just that–a quest to perform better and to provide a greater living experience for citizens and residents. This presents public managers with great opportunities–but also great perils.

Too many localities today are still operating with legacy technology systems made more challenging in recruiting and retaining key IT staff. The IT employment environment in the private sector is outpacing the ability of government to compete; potential job seekers ask, “Why government?” when they can earn so much more in the private sector.

Managing expectations is yet another challenge when it comes to being a smart city, where residents expect more services and engagement with government while at the same time they don’t want to see their taxes raised to pay for their community to be smart.

The vendor community is keenly aware of the current economic and political climate as they seek to engage top elected and senior public managers and promote their smart solution or strategy. The current array of smart city offerings seeks to provide holistic approaches that largely has an impact on most city functionality–cutting across all the historic key verticals (think silos).

As a consequence, and, unfortunately more often than not, the CIO/CTO is bypassed during initial smart city discussions. The Public Technology Institute (PTI) has for years strongly advocated that CIO/CTOs should be intimately involved in any discussion involving smart cities. Simply put: The technology executive MUST be at the table at all times when it comes to developing a smart city strategy.

The role of the technology executive

For the past four years PTI has surveyed its local government CIO/CTO members and has asked specifically about smart city planning. In the latter part of 2017, we asked the question; “Have you begun to think about how IT can support smart cities and counties in your jurisdiction?”

Nearly half the respondents reported that they were “just beginning the smart city process”, followed by nearly one-third stating, “No, but we should”.

The responses, “No, it is not relevant to my jurisdiction” and “Yes, we are well underway” tied for third place with a combined total of less than 20 percent of responses.

The motivations for being involved in smart city initiatives appear to resonate with smart CIOs/CTOs! Reasons as expressed by CIO/CTOs can be summarised as follows:

  • If this is where the action is–we need to be there.
  • This is where the money and resources are and will be.
  • This is one of the best ways to prove our (CIO/CTO) relevance.
  • This is the best path towards modernising government.
  • Great way to be recognised.
  • Good public relations.
  • Should benefit from increased budgets.
  • Will be able to justify new hires and training.
  • Can use a smart city’s initiative as a means of improving citizen and government services.
  • If I don’t get ‘on the train’ it will leave the station without me.
  • If called in too late it may turn in to a huge mess and we could take the blame in the end.
  • This is nothing new, we have been doing smart stuff for years.
  • It is simply a label to describe what we have been doing over the past five years.

The smart city tide will continue to rise

Beyond the smart city rhetoric, local governments are indeed getting smarter, though we are in need of agreed upon definitions and metrics for measuring success. Whatever the agreed upon criteria, any results must be replicable.

2018 promises to be a great year for technology in local government. The vendor community has perfected some excellent solutions, the calibre of IT professionals has grown, and a fickle but restless public expects more conveniences and services from government. Data collection has matured in most places to the point where the end goal is no longer just about publishing data on a web portal. Instead, data collection is geared towards data-driven decisions which, in reality, is the foundation of any smart city initiative.

2018 is the year that social media bots will be employed and tied to artificial intelligence for a more meaningful experience between citizens and government. Basic services such as transport will improve with more intelligent routes, information and communications using sensors to manage traffic flow. Cities will be made safer due to predictive analytics, IP cameras, improved data and radio communication coupled with greater citizen involvement. New technologies show promise in bringing broadband to rural communities.

It is said that a rising tide lifts all boats; this year the smart city tide will continue to rise and serve as the perfect vehicle to apply more intelligent systems throughout local government. However, the next wave necessary to sustain meaningful change is the urgent need for technology leadership. It may be the latter that dampens the promise for meaningful results.

Local government CIO/CTO leaders must rise to the occasion.

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