Arizona cities work to stay ahead of emerging technology

Every month seemingly brings a slick new gadget to consumers’ hands, but those technological advancements aren’t always felt in the public sector, where some local governments have only just begun to push through upgrades to sometimes decades-old systems.

Administrative forces, such as spending limits, often dictate when cities can purchase new technology. Slow updates can cause problems for employees and residents who rely on electronic services to file documents, pay fines or access information.

Even when projects get off the ground, delays can mean cities overshoot their budgets.

In 2013, the city of Phoenix commissioned a new records management system to help its police department handle paperwork better and replace a nearly 25-year-old program.

Jerry Gannon, vice president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association Board of Trustees, said the old system was “held together with Band-Aids” by the time the city replaced it.

The old system could become messy because every typo would create a new records entry, Gannon said. Now, officers can enter records from their cars instead of having to return to the office or pick up the phone.

“We went from a word processor to a high-speed data compliance system,” Gannon said. “You can do searches on it for everything. … It’s so much different.”

Work lagged about a year behind schedule, and the new system did not fully launch until late 2015, costing the city thousands more than expected, according to reports by ABC 15 (KNXV-TV/Channel 15) last year. Gannon called the transition period “chaotic” and said some officers aren’t used to the system after years of working on the old technology.

Because problems like this can arise with upgrades, John Imig, chief information officer for the city of Peoria, said his department plans updates years in advance and adapts and maintains existing systems whenever possible.

“That’s not to say that things are getting so old that we’re suffering reliability problems,” Imig said. “We really don’t have that sort of thing, but our employees understand that there’s a different methodology and a different pace to being in the public sector.”

Updates still happen, but at a more measured speed, Imig said, and sometimes cities can find success.

This year, Peoria received awards from the Public Technology Institute, a national organization that promotes tech use in government, for its updated inventory management and police force applications. The former tracks the city’s equipment and replaces an ailing system nearly a decade old. The latter helps law enforcement analyze crime data to better allocate police resources throughout the city.

Alan Shark, executive director of the institute, said it’s getting harder for governments to stay ahead of new technology and find ways to pay for it, though local governments may have an edge on their federal and state counterparts.

“It’s kind of like the Titanic,” he said. “It’s harder to turn the ship around when it’s so big. Local governments, by comparison, have some advantages by scale. They’re smaller and they’ve got some new options that are actually kind of exciting, where they can do things and save money.”

Buy before build

When city governments decide to implement new technology, they don’t often have the staff, time or money to develop software internally. Instead, they purchase applications off-the-shelf. If they can’t buy a ready-made solution, they try to adapt what’s available or outsource to a private company.

Rob Sweeney, assistant chief information officer for the city of Phoenix, said this “buy before build” strategy has worked well for his organization so far. Imig expressed similar sentiment.

“We look at it in terms of, do we have the tools, do we have the software, that would fulfill this need already?” Imig said. “Or do we need to go out and procure another package for that?”

Sweeney said Phoenix uses a range of software supplied by vendors. One of the city’s goals is to find situations where two departments use different applications for the same task and consolidate them into a single offering, he said.

Outsourcing can be a good thing, Shark said, because it reduces costs and potentially improves security.

“It’s not necessarily an all-or-nothing proposition,” Shark said. “There are many companies that will work with a local government and make it look as if it’s that government. So it could be the County of XYZ, and you go on and it has all the look and feel of that county, but it’s being administered by an outside company.”

It also means cities spend less on personnel and support. That points to a different challenge: When cities decide to undertake a tech project, they may not have the money to pay for new workers or retain high-quality employees, Shark said.

Peoria’s wages for tech department workers compare favorably to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Nationally, tech support specialists, which make up a large portion of Peoria’s IT department, earn an average of $24.76 per hour. Peoria pays them between $19.23 and $34.78 per hour, depending on their responsibilities, according to the city website.

Phoenix’s IT department employs about 200 people, Sweeney said, and compensation also falls in line with national averages.

Whenever Phoenix adds new technology to its system, the size of the support staff swells to account for potential issues. Sweeney said this payroll bump, while usually temporary, adds another factor for the city to consider.

Looking forward

Imig calls his tech department the lifeblood of the city of Peoria. He tells his employees that the rest of the city employees need them to do their jobs. But he recognizes that he can’t work at the pace of his private-sector counterparts.

“We’re not really able to be agile in terms of immediate funding or immediate action as would a for-profit or private sector entity,” Imig said. “But that said, having been in the public sector for over 20 years, I believe that it’s a solid way to do work.”

Moving forward, Imig said it’s difficult to anticipate sweeping technological changes that could alter residents’ and employees’ expectations of how local governments should operate. He said those moments are rare enough that planning years in advance shouldn’t generally be a problem.

Shark foresees a radically different future rapidly approaching, where “smart cities” use data analytics to make more decisions, and city and state institutions link for instant data sharing that allows all departments to work in concert.

It’s a vision that would require a fundamental shift in the way cities approach technology, and a commitment by local leaders to understanding the possibilities, Shark said.

“We have smart cars, we have smart transportation, but we have a lot of silos in government,” he said. “The whole smart cities and counties movement is kind of a new way of looking at management across the board. … I think there’s this holistic view of government that’s been sorely lacking.”