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Amid Budget Woes, Governments Turn to Technology to Drive Streamlining

Leonard Gilroy
October 11, 2009, 3:29pm

Steve Lohr at The New York Times writes today that the pressure to solve state and local fiscal crises may be prompting a fresh look at how technology can drive government streamlining and performance:
Local governments, like many businesses, are struggling with a data glut. Agencies collect huge amounts of information about topics as diverse as building permits, potholes, Medicaid cases and foster-child placements. Technology, according to computer experts and government officials, can be a powerful tool to mine vast troves of government data for insights to streamline services and guide policy.

"The mistake people make is to think that collecting the data is the endgame," said Michael R. Bloomberg, the mayor of New York. The real payoff, he said, takes another step. "We actually use the data," he noted.

Indeed, New York has been a pioneer among cities in the use of computing firepower to sift through data to improve services. It began in the 1990s with the city's CompStat system for mapping, identifying and predicting crime. The system, combined with new policing practices, reduced crime rates in New York and was later adopted by Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore and other cities.

In 2002, the city began its "311" telephone number for answering questions about government services and to report problems down to missing manhole covers. The service receives 50,000 calls a day, and earlier this year began operating on the Web as well. Complaints, response times and resolved problems are tracked and measured to improve performance.

In 2006, the city began an online service, NYC Business Express, to make it easier and faster to start a business. The average time to obtain a building permit, for example, has been cut to 7 days from 40. Such seemingly mundane improvements can add up to big gains in the efficiency of government service systems, experts say, nurturing productivity and growth in local economies. The process, they say, is similar to "lean manufacturing," a system first mastered by Toyota in which step-by-step changes on the factory floor, made repeatedly, translate into major advances in quality and productivity.

Linking government databases can be crucial. The New York Fire Department, in partnership with I.B.M., is developing a system that combines information on building floor plans, inspections and code violations from city agencies and then uses software to analyze and make predictions. Firefighters will be able to call up building information on hand-held wireless computers on their way to a fire. The real-time system, scheduled to be deployed next year, should help guide firefighting tactics and help firefighters avoid some dangers.
Read on to learn more about efforts in Alameda County, California and Dubuque, Iowa to leverage technology to drive efficiency. And in case you missed it the first time around, be sure to re-read former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani's article in Reason Foundation's Innovators in Action 2007—"Management Requires Measurement: The Key to New York City’s Renaissance"—where he details NYC's CompStat and other city efficiency initiatives implemented during his tenure as mayor.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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