Trying to keep up with technology these days can be a full-time job for anyone, and municipalities, in particular, have so many factors to consider, including the different technology needs for various city operations, how often that technology needs updated and how to pay for it all.
When we use the term “technology,” certain images or functions might come to mind, but really every department uses technology from basic laptops and smartphones to more complex enterprise resource systems, customer relationship management systems or geographic information systems. Fortunately, there are several different avenues available to municipalities to help, including cooperative purchasing, private-public partnerships, outsourcing IT needs, grants and other creative solutions.
Duff Erholtz, membership development administrator for Sourcewell — previously NJPA — in Staples, Minn., spoke about how cooperative purchasing helps speed up the purchasing timeframe as well as reducing procurement costs.
“The use of cooperative contracts streamlines the process to maintain continuity in existing systems, allows quicker access to needed products and can allow all city employees/departments access to a proven provider (CDW, SHI, GovTech, etc.) for smaller purchases necessary to ensure workflow,” Erholtz said.
“Cooperative contracts also allow expertise to be factored into the purchasing decision — (especially with) brand preference or dealer preference. The knowledge and expertise provided are more important than the actual security or technology hardware. Utilizing a cooperative contract can allow a municipality to ‘choose’ a proven and trusted provider and still be compliant with its mandated procurement codes and policies,” Erholtz added.
The use of cooperative contracts gives cities better pricing by leveraging national volume and also allows access to expertise that may not be available otherwise in structuring the solicitation of the contract and evaluating the contract.
Increasingly, communities are partnering with private companies or organizations for the benefit of each other. AT&T has been reaching out to cities across the country to help bring in 5G technology. In news releases this past July, the company announced plans to introduce mobile 5G to the cities of Raleigh, N.C.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Oklahoma City, Okla. They will be joining Dallas, Texas; Waco, Texas; and Atlanta, Ga. These news releases also noted that AT&T is deliberately launching this to a mix of big and mid-sized cities.
Melissa Arnoldi, president of AT&T Technology & Operations, said in that release, “We’re on track to launch the first mobile 5G services and deliver the first device to customers this year. 5G will be more than just a better network.”
She added that after the trials conducted with large, mid-sized and small businesses over the past two years, “We believe 5G will ultimately create a world of new economic opportunities, greater mobility and smarter connectivity for individuals, businesses and security as a whole.”
This 5G technology will reportedly allow for new experiences like virtual reality, telemedicine, self-driving cars, robotics, smart cities and more. The Internet of Things technology will be better with 5G, and some applications for cities include simply retrofitting existing streetlights with sensors that can help monitor traffic and road conditions, reduce crime and help first responders.
Sandy Springs, Ga.
The city of Sandy Springs incorporated in 2005 operates as a public-private partnership city with nearly half of the city’s employees employed by private companies. General city services, including public works, community development, IT, finance, courts, communications, parks and recreation, economic development and call center operations, are all carried out with the help of private contractors.
According to Sharon Kraun, communications director for the city of Sandy Springs, the contracts are on a five-year cycle with annual reviews of task orders.
Jonathan Crowe, IT director, said this enables the city to “attract better employees who are more eager” while allowing them more freedom as well. The entire department is contracted labor, but they are full-time employees working on site who are dedicated to the city.
When it comes to outsourcing, that’s a piece of advice that Jason Green, a member of the city’s smart cities committee, offered, “Outsource to a company or organization that’s going to give you in-house employees.” He added that’s a flexible model and employees working in-house “better understand your needs.”
Formed about a year ago, the smart city committee is comprised of about 10 people from various city departments. “Not necessarily department heads,” Green said, “but several middle-of-the-road or technology-minded individuals” who meet monthly to collaborate on city’s challenges and how to solve them.
Green said, “One of the key challenges is coordinating technology between different departments or different silos.”
The goal is that everybody in every silo is aware of any initiatives so they are able to bring expertise to the decision-making process.
In other words, Green said, if one department is “searching for tech solutions and is vetting a product, that they’re not duplicating efforts (happening in another department).”
Crowe agreed saying that having the committee makes for “better inter-department communication.”
One of the recent projects that the smart city committee undertook was a unified platform.
With all the city’s different electronic systems, public communications, websites and social media accounts, staff members were spending a lot of time posting in all the different places. With the unified platform, they can create content in one place and it goes out to all those different avenues at once.
Green said committee members knew they wouldn’t be able to go to one vendor and get an out-of-box product — they knew they’d have to customize it to the city’s needs. Rather than totally reinventing the wheel, the city got a single content management platform from Drupal and heavily customized it to meet needs. Now when employees create content, it goes every platform at once — to all four of the city’s digital signs, all the widgets, social media, etc.
“Being able to post content in one place and automatically be able to display it on all the signage, etc. was big for us,” he said. If there are any negatives to this, Crowe said, “Sometimes there are so many options it’s hard to get a grip.”
But if that happens, it goes through the chain of command for the department and “to the city manager who makes the ultimate decisions for the city,” said Green.
Other advice that Green offered was to “invest in people who understand technology.”
When it comes to smart cities, Crowe cautioned, “Don’t invest in technology for the sake of technology — identify your needs and make sure you’re getting the right solution.”
Kraun couldn’t agree more. “We get pitched technology on a daily basis, but sometimes the old-fashioned way of doing things is still best.”
When it comes to making your city a smarter city, it’s best to focus on what works best for you and your residents while finding the most efficient and cost-effective way to implement it.