The Secret to City Government Success in the Digital Era

By Nate Levine

Named to the 2014 Forbes “30 Under 30” list, OpenGov Co-founder Nate Levine is a decorated researcher and transparency thought leader. Before OpenGov, Levine co-founded and served as President of California Common Sense, where he established California’s first-ever data transparency portal and built a brand of research excellence. Nate studied engineering at Stanford University where he also worked for the Political Science Department, researching and analyzing militarized conflicts.

Jun 20, 2016 | Smart Cities | 0 comments

In the 1500’s, England faced the threat of imminent invasion from the Spanish and the French. Sparsely populated and blanketed in fog, the British Isles were tempting targets for roaming armadas. An army could land on a coast and march inland before anybody could raise an alarm.

Abandoned defense post on the British coast. Credit: Ian Redding

Abandoned defense post on the British coast. Credit: Ian Redding

In defense, the British built a network of triangular fire beacons on high points throughout the countryside (today you’ll find many places named Beacon Hill). One lit point was a warning. Two points meant ships had been spotted. A full burning triangle was reserved for emergencies where soldiers reached land. As the chain of beacons spread, a small number of remote outposts could monitor a wide area and transmit data faster than would have otherwise been possible.

The British benefitted from the power of networks. And they aren’t unique. Time after time, civilizations have leveraged networks, whether in the form of fire, telegraph lines, or highways, to get otherwise unattainable benefits.

Nowhere have networks been more important than cities.

Today’s cities have access to networked technologies that will lead to greater connectedness than ever before – enabling governments to effectively serve citizens in the digital age.

The Challenge

Miami is one of many cities in danger from climate change. Credit: PhotosVit

Miami is one of many cities in danger from climate change.  Credit: PhotosVit

Miami is known for its beachfront, a row of skyscrapers, hotels, and resorts separated from water only by a thin strip of palm trees. But its picturesque location carries risks. If estimates about sea level rise are accurate, a large swath of Miami may be underwater in less than a century.

Miami-Dade County was built at sea level, with nearly 150,000 people (and $38 billion in property) sitting just a foot or two above the waves. Across the country, nearly 3 million additional homes face the same situation. Massive infrastructure investments in sea walls and pumping stations will be required to adapt. And even then large groups of people may be forced to migrate.

Governments everywhere confront serious problems. The American Society of Civil engineers recently rated our infrastructure a D+ on a global scale. Local governments have between 1 and 3 trillion dollars of unfunded pension debt. Temporary fixes have strained budgets and squeezed services, leading to all-time lows in public trust and engagement.

These problems aren’t new, but their scale is. Globalization and population growth have amplified the effects of regional issues. Add terrorism, diseases, and national challenges like the heroin epidemic and the situation soon seems intractable.

Governments also need to contend with emerging technologies. Self-driving cars, big data, and Artificial Intelligence promise unprecedented advancements, but bring similarly large challenges. New techniques and infrastructure will be required to accommodate and regulate these tools.

With gridlock in Washington, cities are thrust into more powerful positions – good city management is more important than ever. Fortunately cities are resilient, and with the right combination of ideas and systems, they can adapt to a rapidly changing world.

Connected Government

While citizens can purchase everything from plane tickets to automobiles with a smartphone app, they need to fax, mail, or hand deliver many government forms to city hall. Though over one billion gigabytes of data are published online each day, government data is rarely accessible via the web. If it is, it’s often only in PDF form.

These problems may seem like minor inconveniences, but they reveal a deeper problem in the way many cities operate:

  1. Little data is collected, and much of it is stored on paper.
  2. Measurement often focuses on inputs (how much money goes to affordable housing) rather than outputs (housing affordability metrics).
  3. Systems that do store data are siloed and don’t connect to one another.
  4. Few people have access to these complex systems.

Taken together, these circumstances handicap cities and limit their ability to tackle problems. For example, the City of McKinney, Texas found that just compiling the prior month’s financial details into a digestible report for decision makers took fifteen days of manual work. To quote the City Manager, “We would be publishing an October report at the end of November. By that point, the council and the departments were already on to bigger and better things.”

As challenges pile on, cities are forced to be reactionary. It can be a struggle to keep the lights on and the streets safe, and civic leaders are spending their time putting out fires rather than planning and strategizing. With generation-defining challenges looming, this approach won’t cut it. A new paradigm is required: the Connected Government.

What does Connected Government mean? Technology is a necessary element, though it ultimately requires a new, holistic way of thinking. Connected Government means that every disparate structure and unit within a government is contributing to a central knowledge-pool, communicating seamlessly and working in concert towards common goals. To that end, a Connected Government should be built on four pillars:

  • Connections to Employees and Elected Officials
  • Connections to Citizens
  • Connections to Infrastructure
  • Connections to Other Governments

Sharing Internally

At OpenGov, we run a mostly paperless office. Our three printers only whir to life a few times a week. Everything else is stored in the cloud. Emails, calendars, and files are in Google. Salesforce forms the backbone of business functions, storing data on customers. A marketing system juggles interactions between the company and the outside world.

These cutting-edge systems share two important traits: they are accessible from anywhere at any time, and they are linked together. If an email is sent to a customer, a record is automatically registered in Salesforce. If an engineer needs to see how frequently a certain feature is used, she can run a report on her own. While a successful company is more than its systems, a networked infrastructure has enabled us to provide value to over a thousand cities and counties across the country with a small team.

Today, critical data on everything from crime to finance is stuck in outdated, on-premise systems. Some, built on code from the 1970’s or 80’s, lack basic reporting functionality. And few are networked, meaning key data generated by single department can spread across dozens of siloed systems (one mid-sized Bay Area city has over 120).

As a result, precious time and energy is spent on gathering and organizing information. Better workflow tools mean analysts spend less time in spreadsheets and more time on policies. Managers and executives can make better-informed decisions (and more of them).

The other reason technology is important? In the next three years, many cities will see 50% of their employees eligible to retire. A combination of stalled hiring during the recession and few young workers signing up for government jobs has left the ranks of government leadership sparse. As experienced employees leave, institutional knowledge drains with them.

To attract younger replacements (who expect readily-available information), intuitive, accessible systems are necessary. Plus, they will rely on these systems to fill the knowledge gaps created by retirements.


Coordinating internally is only half the battle. Ultimately, governments can’t govern without support from the citizens they serve.

Let’s take the case of Miami. Over the next few years, perhaps they will use sophisticated tools to determine where they need to build pumping stations. The bill is over the city’s budget, so they calculate the rate for a new sales tax to fund it. Now the city will need ballot approval and the connected government mindset can help.

Visualizations showing how rising sea levels could devastate the community illustrate the problem. Then data on the solution is shared, maybe by showing how other cities across the world implemented similar infrastructure improvements. Finally, the budget team will need to demonstrate that a new tax is necessary, because other funds are tied up in critical areas.

None of these concepts are easy to communicate, and traditional, static presentations won’t do them justice. A new wave of Open Data technologies makes it easy to share everything from traffic data to education and crime statistics online. Software developers are already identifying ways to mine this data to provide new services. And early evidence suggests that cities with more data online see a significant decrease in information requests, freeing up valuable staff resources.

With faith in government at an all-time low (a recent Pew Poll puts the number of Americans that trust government at only 24%) cities must do more to engage with their residents. When citizens understand how governments operate, they are more likely to support difficult and unpopular decisions.

Internet of Things

In 2007, the world had 10 million networked sensors. Today, 3.5 billion. In the next five years, experts predict there could be over a trillion. Advanced sensors will soon permeate every person and object. The government applications are endless. Think of everything a city is responsible for: a fleet of vehicles, roads, bridges, sewers, and employees. Now imagine they are all connected 24/7.

This is the Internet of Things’ promise, and it offers a revolutionary shift when combined with a Connected Government. Entire job functions (i.e. a water quality inspector) could be made obsolete (by floating sensor packages), freeing up staff for other tasks. Infrastructure that can monitor its own condition will warn city engineers before a disaster strikes.

The proliferation of small, cheap sensors will enable the flood of information that Connected Governments can capitalize on. Think Sim City, where leaders have a central dashboard with real-time information on how various functions are performing.

More data collected at greater frequencies save time and money, precious commodities for cities of all sizes.

A Network of Governments

Between 2003 and 2013, heroin-related deaths in the US rose 286 percent. Health experts call the trend an epidemic. The challenge is vexing, since many addicts are initially hooked by painkillers prescribed for legitimate conditions. Plus decades of evidence demonstrate law enforcement alone won’t work.

An effective response will require coordinating multiple efforts:

  • Education to prevent dependence and addiction.
  • Law enforcement initiatives targeting illicit suppliers.
  • Programs to treat and rehabilitate addicts.
  • Training for doctors overprescribing painkillers.

While Federal agencies may coordinate efforts, the execution ultimately falls on local leaders. But these issues are rarely contained within municipal boundaries. Say addicts living in one community commit crimes in a neighboring city to pay for drugs. Or an organized criminal group operates across county lines. These problems become much easier to address when data is shared and systems speak a common language.

Embracing Connected Government will first mean adopting better systems internally, but will ultimately extend to connections with other jurisdictions as well.

Imagine a world where cities can peer into their neighbors’ performance, matching up spending with education and public safety outcomes to see what works. Using platforms driven by sophisticated data science, cities can monitor hundreds of variables and spot a national challenge or opportunity before it hits. In the case of opioid abuse, federal funding can support a coordinated initiative that spans multiple cities and tackles the epidemic at a larger scale.


Governments successfully connected the country with rail lines. Now, cities lack broadband Internet. Photo Credit: hxdyl

Governments successfully connected the country with rail lines. Now, cities lack broadband Internet.
Photo Credit: hxdyl

In less than a hundred years, governments have gone from leading the trend towards greater connection through technology to lagging far behind the curve. In the 1800’s, governments helped lay a quarter-million miles of rail lines across the US. Yet today many cities still lack broadband Internet – 25 years after the emergence of the World Wide Web.

It’s tempting to blame governments; after all they are responsible for taking these steps. Yet we are responsible for our governments. Every day we encounter hardworking, bold civic leaders who want to effect meaningful changes. From their unique position of influence, cities have the potential to take charge and lead us forward.

When all the pieces of Connected Government are in play, a new form of city will emerge, ready to meet the demands of the 21st Century.


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