Technology can offer municipal governments a multitude of opportunities to improve city services, but expectations around integrating it into existing infrastructure on current budgets poses numerous challenges.

Speaking at Technicity on Dec. 7 in Toronto, Michael Williams, general manager of economic development and culture at the City of Toronto, said that the biggest hurdle to overcome in regards to implementing technology in the public sector are finances – or lack thereof.

“Last year, [Toronto] had a $12 billion budget, and we spent $36 million on transformation – that’s clearly not enough money to make all the technological changes we want to do and it won’t help us get very far,” he explained during a panel titled “Wicked Challenges and Opportunities.”

“The public sector municipal government needs to balance the budget every year, and that slows down change,” he said. “In the private sector, as long as you could find cash somewhere, you could make the changes however fast you wanted. A city can’t do that.”

Also speaking on the panel, Rob Meikle, the City of Toronto’s CIO, added that execution from a fiscal and investment standpoint is a challenge. As a result, he said, the city needs to make hard decisions on prioritizing what technological investments it can actually afford to implement every year.

He noted that another rising problem is the gap between expectations and reality, which has continued to grow “as citizens, businesses, and even governments demand shorter timeframes for improvement.”

“The reality is that the appetite [for technological improvements] is greater than funding will permit. This expectation is a challenge. We go through all our tech investments and know we can’t do it all,” he told an audience made up of city staff and tech industry veterans.

City working to be more responsive, foster new talent

Beyond the fiscal challenges, Meikle said that Toronto’s municipal government is working on modernizing policies so that the city can be more responsive to change: one recent example is appointing a city councillor as Advocate for the Innovation Economy, a new position that will explore opportunities for the city to incorporate tech into its day-to-day operations.

The position is only one step towards aligning city services with the excellence businesses and citizens are demanding, but remains a “strong signal” that digital transformation is a priority for the mayor and city council, Meikle told the crowd.

Making sure the city has the physical infrastructure to leap over digital divides and support advanced technological changes, such as ensuring all areas of the city have proper internet, for example, is also key, Williams added.

Another important step Williams described is ensuring Toronto and its mayor continue to promote the region’s technology elsewhere. Williams stressed that it is fundamental for a city to bring in new dollars in from outside the southern Ontario region, and that he would like to see more global trips from Mayor John Tory, such as his visit to Israel in November, to foster the city and its talent, resources and businesses.

“Toronto is doing much better than people realize in terms of technological infrastructure and companies that provide those services,” he argued. “But it’s also important to also look outside the city for new investment, so we need to make sure the mayor and his colleagues continue to encourage Toronto and Canada-based tech.”

However, moderator Jim Love, CIO of IT World Canada, brought up the fact that there is an ongoing technical skills shortage in Canada, and both panelists agreed it was a matter that needs to be dealt with quickly.

“Talent management is a priority for me,” Meikle stated, adding that the topic is on every single one of his biweekly leadership meeting agendas. He pointed to several reasons why Canada is undergoing such a shortage, the top one being the fact that talent is needed by both the public and private sectors, meaning they are competing for talent within the same small pool.

Meikle told the crowd that he thinks the public sector needs to do a better job at attracting talent, and pointed to the city’s partnerships with local schools as an example. Starting young and finding people with the common drive of wanting to make a difference within their own city is key, he said.

However, more important than talent is the ability to collaborate and work as a team.

“We operate under the principle that success is a byproduct of a high performing team and we focus a lot on finding people that are the right fit. It’s a competitive landscape, yes, but collaborative attitudes and behaviours still come first, and technical skills second. Since we exist in such a political web, attracting the right people for the right reasons is important,” Meikle said.

Two sides of technology

But despite all the benefits of technology, Williams pointed out that it can bring about negative aspects as well, such as job loss as a result of automation.

“All the technologies from the last 20 years have created new industries and net worth,” he said. “People predicted everything was going to be taken over by technology, that we’d have extra time for more leisurely activities, all that stuff.”

“That didn’t happen, but we’re entering a time where there’s a serious probability that the technologies being created today will leave significant groups of people unemployed,” he continued.

Williams used self-driving cars as an example, saying that since they are touted as being safer than traditional human-driven vehicles, fewer accidents could lead to fewer insurance agents. Self-driving transport trucks mean fewer truck drivers, he added, and more financial technologies could mean less bankers.

“Technology can make our lives much easier and efficient, and save time and money, but it can also lead to job loss,” he said.

“We need to figure out how to manage that quickly because it’s important. A government needs to look at both sides of the impact it can have,” Williams concluded.

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