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Smart Governance: Beginning to Explore Technological Innovation from Your Own Corner of the Public Sector

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Sean Ziller
February 2, 2019

Cloud computing. Data mining. Blockchain technology. What does any of this mean and how do we, as public administrators, begin to define it in the scope of emerging smart governance? How do we reconcile any of it with the normal day-to-day operations of our respective departments or agencies? These are vital, yet intrinsically difficult, questions that will inevitably have to be answered by public-sector leaders. The answers could ensure that unique public service isn’t outpaced by societal innovation elsewhere.

Many would argue that the inherent speed of technological development in the private sector can’t wholly translate to the long-term planning and technological development of the public sector. However, there are technological inroads that are unique to the public sphere. Only now are public administrators beginning to understand what they are and how they can be better attained. Such mechanisms include innovative public-private partnerships and a re-engineered commitment to providing efficientconstituent service. Looking toward new technological development in respective public arenas will require one to acknowledge current operational challenges that could potentially hinder goal planning. It will also require possessing realistic expectations in the face of new technology.

It’s first important to understand how new technology has changed and will continue to change the public landscape. Incorporating technological innovation has transformed urban growth aided by the public sector. This is highlighted by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak in their novel on municipal problem solving, The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism. Katz and Nowak cite portions of Antoine van Agtmael and Fred Bakker’s book, The Smartest Places on Earth: Why Rustbelts Are the Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation. Here they explain that “The integration of hardware and software, of mechanics and electronics has resulted in ‘smart, complex products.’” Today these products produce greater value for citizens than mechanisms that now seem antiquated. With this being said, it would make sense that many officials across the public sphere would want to explore new technological offerings that bring their operation into the 21st century.

Understanding where the intersection between technology and policymaking can feasibly occur within our own operation is the next step in attempting to make smart governance a reality. In their 2017 article from Science and Public Policy (SPP),“Wonks and Geeks: Examining Commercial Technology Stakeholders’ Perceptions of and Interactions with Public Policy,” Lillian Ablon and Andrea Golay interview key players from the commercial technology industry. They do this to better understand how to begin thinking about public policy that is on-par with current technology. As stated, society needs to overcome one major viewpoint; that the public sector and private tech industry continually exist on two radically different planes of thinking. While valid to an extent, this belief is so firmly rooted that it results in technology policy that may, purely out of comfort and routine, remain outdated. Additionally, there persists a concern, according to Ablon and Golay, that technology policy is routinely ineffective because it is devised either too strictly or too broadly, or often does not meet the underlying needs of the policymaker. Ablon and Golay chalk this up to challenges of engagement. They see the issue as a speed mismatch or education gap between technology resources, players, and public administrators.

Certain respondents also offered the following suggestions in Ablon and Golay’s study:

  • In a reengineered policy making process, officials could involve technology experts early on when they are considering new mechanisms in order to help create, “a more informed agenda and to better mesh the two [public and commercial sector] cultures.”
  • Involving more input from the tech community would allow it to become more informed about the types of products and overall mechanisms that are needed by the public sector, as well as become familiar with vital day-to-day processes.

Among other recommendations, Ablon and Golay explain that by employing what they classify as a cross-pollination between the public sector and technology industries, public officials can begin to form a basis for future tech exploration in their respective arenas. By understandingtheir own needs, and possessing a baseline knowledge of the tech offerings available to them, administrators can better comprehend their own budgetary and planning conditions to determine possible technological innovation in their work. It’s ultimately about overcoming industry fear. No amount of technological growth is possible without a public administrator’s willingness to delve into uncharted territory. It would be easy to maintain processes that are tried and true. There is, understandably, an anxiety regarding whether the level of constituent service will be impacted, or the goals of a strategic plan not met, should time, money, and energy have to be spent on an area of untapped technological growth. Unfortunately, maintaining the status quo is no longer possible in a world where digital connection is at our fingertips and citizens want their services delivered just as quickly. However, this isn’t a cause for panic. Staying informed about where technology relevant to public service is headed, and using that knowledge to reinforce calculated policy and budgetary decision-making, will begin to make room for progress in your own corner of the public sphere

Author: Mr. Sean L. Ziller is a policy analyst and consultant with Conduent State and Local Solutions, Inc. in Philadelphia. He possesses a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from King’s College (Wilkes-Barre, PA) and a Master of Public Administration degree from Pennsylvania State University, with graduate certificates in Public Budgeting and Financial Management and Public Sector Human Resource Management. All opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer. He can be reached at [email protected].

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