A recent NPR Marketplace segment shines a spotlight on the tech challenges local governments face
The word “legacy” is often used to describe something handed down from one generation to the next. It could be money or property bequeathed in a will, or it could be the antiquated software passed from one local administration to the next. Needless to say, finding out you’re the heir apparent to a priceless Picasso is preferable to inheriting a green-screen computer that uses a programming language no longer taught in schools. Sadly, the latter is the cumbersome legacy that many municipal workers are left with as they try to deliver modern services to their communities.
Kai Ryssdal and Liz Sanchez of NPR’s Marketplace recently reported on the woeful state of information technology in the municipal sector. In a two-part radio interview, Ryssdal spoke first with Romy Varghese who covers technology for Bloomberg San Francisco where the local assessor’s office is still using software from the 1980s. A week later, the Marketplace team followed up with Carmen Chu elected assessor of San Francisco for her take on what it’s like to work with outdated technology.
Ryssdal confessed that he was both “surprised and horrified” to hear that many local governments — especially San Francisco with its proximity to Silicon Valley (AKA: the cradle of tech innovation) — rely on antiquated systems to assess taxes and fund vital community services. Unfortunately, having to make do with limited resources is a familiar refrain in municipal circles and a conversation we at ClearGov often have with our clients and prospects. So, while we weren’t “surprised” by the Marketplace report, a few (energy-efficient) lightbulbs did go off:
1. Willfully or not, the public is in the dark.
These Marketplace segments on NPR function like a Public Service Announcement (PSA) for municipalities. And by that I mean they serve to raise awareness and may help change public attitude. The fact is unless you work in local government, work for an industry that serves local government, or are a very engaged citizen, you probably have no idea what tools your Town Hall or school district uses to crunch numbers or allocate resources. Why would you? The streets get plowed, the trash gets picked up, the school buses run.
You probably just assume that like any small business your home town is equipped with at least the basics to get the job done. Of course, if it were your small business, you’d want the best, most efficient tools you could afford for yourself and your team. But, that’s the thing. You are after all a taxpayer, so local government actually IS your business and you should want it run in the most effective way possible, right?
That’s the message civic leaders need to pass on to their constituents. Informed residents can help municipalities actually make a case for modernizing systems. For example, if every business leader and average citizen within earshot of that Marketplace radio segment were asked if they thought the people responsible for carrying out tax law and funding public safety should have 21st century software, I’m guessing the majority would say yes. And, that right there is a compelling argument for fiscal transparency in local government, something we talk about a lot here.
Citizens need to know and understand that while many local municipalities are getting by with antiquated solutions, they’re missing revenue opportunities, wasting time, and ultimately not serving the public’s best interest. Frankly, local agencies are reaching a tipping point. Soon, the question will no longer be whether they can afford to innovate, but can they afford not to.
2. Fiscal transparency done right can shed much-needed light on how revenues are collected and distributed.
Thomas Jefferson famously said, “The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate.” We the people need to have a frank discussion about what it takes to run a local government efficiently in the year 2019. At the heart of that conversation is a transparent and clear accounting of revenues and expenditures. We’ve talked about it many times before, but people can’t get behind what they don’t understand.
In an effort to comply with OPEN data initiatives, many municipalities have started posting PDFs of their financials on their website. Sadly, they’re not doing their residents or themselves any favors. No one is going to scroll through 200+ pages ofspreadsheets to find the line items they care about or, for that matter, the line items towns want them to support. Furthermore, if it’s an image-only PDF (that’s the kind that treats all of those pages like one giant image), it’s not even searchable. This kind of transparency does nothing to drive public awareness or build consensus, which leads us to our third lightbulb moment.
3. Who says modernizing government isn’t sexy?
Our ears perked up when Kai Ryssdal implied that tech companies weren’t interested in solving the legacy software issue for municipalities. Hello?!! It’s actually ClearGov’s mission. In addition to creating an affordable, turnkey transparency and benchmarking platform that translates dense fiscal data into interactive infographics everyone can understand, we’ve also introduced a cloud-based budgeting and forecasting solution custom-built for local governments.
Light years beyond the green-screen computers in the San Francisco tax assessor’s office, our AI-powered platform helps local governments better forecast the impact of property tax caps on revenues or contracted salary increases on future expenditures. Our solution also empowers municipal finance administrators with valuable features folks in the private sector take for granted like trend analysis, collaboration tools, audit trails, and much more. These are the tools modern cities need to make better choices and to govern as efficiently and effectively as possible, not just today but well into the future. And, because they’re cloud-based solutions, they’ll always be up to date.
Municipalities aren’t clinging to legacy software, because they like it or because the tech world isn’t offering viable alternatives. While funding is definitely a factor, it’s more complicated than that. But, we’ve got answers.