Gartner public sector research director Bill Finnerty addresses the 2017 MISA Ontario Annual Conference on June 5 in Windsor, Ontario.

Published: June 6th, 2017

WINDSOR, ON. – Digital transformation has not laid an easy path for municipalities, but it’s one they must follow if they wish to grow, according to a lead researcher with consulting firm Gartner Inc.

Simply put, present municipal governing practices aren’t sustainable, Gartner public sector research director Bill Finnerty told attendees at the 2017 Municipal Information Systems Association of Ontario (MISA) Annual Conference: They do not deliver the services their users expect, for the price government officials (and taxpayers, for that matter) expect.

“We’re behind the eight ball,” he said. “We need to create new ways of delivering government services, and digital transformation has proven to be a reliable method of moving beyond the status quo into a sustainable form of government.”

Asked if there were any government services in particular that municipalities should focus on streamlining, Finnerty said he could not think of any that shouldn’t be considered, but acknowledged that if it were his decision, he would consider a handful of citizen-facing services first.

“Your citizens are the ones you’re trying to benefit,” he said. “So your first questions should be something like: How do you use analytics to make your services more predictive? How can you apply them to new service models that let you know which providers are working best in which scenarios, and align them with the right clients – that is, citizens, at the right time?”

When evaluating digital transformation options, it also helps to research what other cities have implemented, Finnerty said – and aspiring transformers will find plenty to inspire them.

New York City, for example, has developed the official NYC311 Mobile App, which allows residents to check if parking meters or garbage collection are suspended, whether public schools are closed, or submit service requests regarding noise, heat, hot water, rat conditions, snow, or potholes, while the city of Mississauga’s 2015 IT Master Plan has included providing citizens with free Wi-Fi, accessible from all city libraries, community centres, marinas, city hall, and a list of public spaces that continues to grow.

“A very high percentage of Ontario municipalities have strategic plans, so that’s a foundation which I think gives them an advantage over a lot of other areas,” he said.

Another possibility to consider is researching potential service providers and business partners, who can provide application programming interfaces (APIs) or microservices on the government’s behalf, Finnerty said.

“[Digital transformation efforts] don’t all have to be developed internally by the government to deliver a new way of doing things,” he said, noting that the private sector often has more insight into the number of digital services available in the first place.

Where to start?

After the planning stage, the first and most important step in implementing digital transformation is actually building the team or teams that will carry it out, Finnerty said. Ideally groups should be divided by expertise: One for ideas, another for replacing legacy technology, another for creating a culture of innovation within your government’s hallways.

That last, he admitted, is an especially tough challenge.

“Government is risk-averse,” he said. “And there are lots of good reasons for that, but we need to go back to letting them try new ideas and not be afraid of failing all the time.”

More importantly, he said, digital transformation teams should not pursue all of their ideas at once, or assume everything they try is going to work out.

“Calculate your risk,” Finnerty said. “End initiatives early when you know that they’re not working, so you can try new approaches.”

It helps, he said, if IT teams can find – or are led by – at least one champion from the c-suite, such as councillors or the mayor.

“Find your champions up front,” he said. “Find the progressive partners within your organization who want to pursue digital transformation. Because if you just frame it as IT cost savings, you’re relegating IT back to being a cost centre.”

As for building the demand for innovation within your municipality, Finnerty recommends lessons in subjects such as design thinking that have tangible benefits for non-IT users – and bringing your plans to IT users outside your municipality as well, through events such as hackathons or industry organizations such as MISA.

It’s also important that municipalities approach digital transformation in an agile fashion, implementing their plans in short bursts that keep participants focused on long-term goals, rather than attempting a quickly-implemented, high-impact project that quickly dries up, like an intense, short-lived waterfall.

Code for America’s view is that someone basically needs to be working with a code brigade for a couple of years before they truly understand government and can figure out how to transform it,” he said. “So make sure you invest the time and effort to make your voice heard – and take the long view with your projects and investments.”

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