Making Government More Connected

We live in an extraordinary time in the history of human civilization – never before has the globe been “flatter” and have people been more interdependent. In every context imaginable – business, personal, and political – one cannot ignore the power of these new connections.

Businesses and individuals have embraced these trends and their power (e.g. many can’t remember the last time they spoke to a bank teller or called a restaurant or hotel for reservations), yet government is generally a laggard, much to the chagrin of many residents. Although many government agencies have social media presences and communicate with constituents electronically, so much of our work is still done in the “20th century” way. There is still a lot of paper, and residents often have to physically show up at government offices to receive services. There is actually a good reason for much of this, as government, by design, is meant to be more deliberate and risk-averse. Governments use taxpayer dollars; government business is open – salaries, contracts, and board meetings are all open to the public, and the public is invited and expected to participate in decision-making processes; government must serve all residents, and often we as citizens don’t agree on which services have the highest value or should be the highest priority.

So, what’s a government to do in an era where technology is changing so rapidly? It needs to recognize and embrace the big trends while implementing new solutions in the context of its larger mission and constraints. That’s why the Information Services Department (ISD) of the County of San Mateo has clarified its mission around the notion of “connections” – connecting employees within the County government as well as and connecting residents to their government – through infrastructure, data, and services.

For building solutions within the County, ISD must act more as a “connection broker” rather than try to manage the ever-shortening cycles of technology changes. The era of taking years to come up with product requirements and another few years to develop software is long over – such a project could be obsolete before being implemented. Software solutions must be more adaptive than predictive. This is why government needs to – and inevitable will – embrace “cloud-based” solutions where an outside, commercial entity expert on managing these changes takes responsibility for it. And despite many fears to the contrary, hosted solutions will undoubtedly be more secure than those built in-house by governments. This approach also gives us more flexibility to meet the needs of ever-proliferating devices as well as managing data that is growing exponentially.

To facilitate the connections between government and its residents, our government must both ensure that its residents have connections in the first place, and then provide services where they are. Although we live in the heart of Silicon Valley, we still have a significant digital divide as measured by those with high-speed access to the Internet and those without. Undertaking projects such as SMC Public WiFi supports our diverse communities and embraces newer communication channels such as social media sites and applications to facilitate a richer interactive dialog between government and those that it serves.

Although government will almost always be a laggard in the adoption of new technologies and the embrace of new trends, we know we have great potential to both serve the public much better and be more efficient with tax payer dollars in the process. All of this will come from the relentless focus on the notion of “connections” – on a technical level, a physical level, and even an interpersonal level. Fundamentally, that’s what technology is good at – it creates connections among people and between people and information and how we can continue to build and improve them.

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