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The Public Sector and Technology

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

By Peter Melan
May 12, 2021

The dreaded word most often avoided in the public sector is technology. Why? Well, the reason is simple yet sophisticated. Most constituents have a genuine fear of technology and are usually unimpressed with new ways to pay a bill or look at financials on the city website. When the population breakdown shows a majority of the constituents have a basic understanding of technology or limited access, it is no wonder why people dislike the word and avoid it at all costs.

Why is implementing technology a significant obstacle in the public sector? One answer is staff who function in their role and worry that any advancement in technology is a sign that their position has the potential for elimination. Although this is a viable concern, it is incumbent on administrators to reassure individuals that technology is not the enemy and that it can only enhance their skillset and increase productivity.

There continues to be a significant divide between talented professionals in both the private and public sectors. Information technology jobs continue to remain competitive and challenging to fill, as there is a large delta between available positions and qualified applicants. When considering employing that unique individual to help with the technology needs of an organization, is the allure of a pension, comparable salary and other fringe benefits enough to attract that individual? Offering this person autonomy within the financial constraints to implement a plan and become an agent of change does the trick.

There is a stigma that the public sector is stuck on old software, big-box processing and stale processes. The stigma is technically correct, but what can be done to remove that stigma and move into the current world of SAAS (software as a service) and cloud-based computing? Leaders who embrace change and are willing to invest in technology needs are critical not only to success, but also to administrators having confidence in someone’s ability to implement these complex upgrades and projects.

Enter the public and the end-users who will use the new website or payment portal and reap the benefits of any technology upgrade. Careful consideration takes precedence when informing the public and providing the mechanism to illustrate how a particular task requires completion. With tools such as social media and animated videos, the concepts are limitless in how to explain a task or process in a way that is not cumbersome, but instead friendly and approachable. Another suggestion is to have a computer setup and offer to help a constituent create their user profile or signup for the city newsletter. It is not so much the task, but the way the task is presented and whether it creates frustration to the point where the resident refuses to participate. Consider the Mayor, a central figure of the organization, as the presenter who is the familiar face and can resonate with the constituents.

There also has to be careful consideration given to the end-user when implementing any change, regardless of size. In recent news, organizations are coping with lawsuits that their systems are not compliant with federal laws about accessibility, which is a single issue that is quickly gaining traction. The solution is to consider all citizens when designing a system or making a change to the website. Simple, yet accommodating and conforming to proper standards will result in confidence amongst end-users who will recognize that their needs were met and not ignored.

There are limitations to the amount of technology an organization can implement. Change requires funding, and in the world of public sector budgeting and tightening restrictions on available dollars, the desire to enact change presents its set limitations. As an alternative to funding challenges, consider contacting the local college to provide students with their talent in a cooperative manner where they can earn credit and gain real-world experience. With some colleges and universities limited by options to offer their student body an ability to give back to the community, this option would benefit both the organization and provide a fulfilling experience to a student while enhancing their resume.

Technology should not be reserved for the private sector and frustrate constituents who are reliant on their local government for assistance. The environment should be welcoming and accommodating to all walks of life where no barriers to information exist. An open government is a trusted government. Substantive changes to technology, information and accessibility can work simultaneously to provide the user with a positive experience. Enabling creativity and allowing for staff to explore ideas that may require little cost or solve problems under their auspice is beneficial to an organization. Consider change as positive and work hard to remove any stigma on the public sector, such as what is emblematic with the old Commodore 64 computer, with its tv-like monitor and corded mouse.

Author: Peter Melan is the owner of PeterMelan.com a consulting firm specializing in local government. He is a second-term councilperson in Easton, PA. Peter is also a public speaker and a writer for several online publications. He recently received his MPA from Ohio University and is in his first semester of doctoral studies at West Chester University.

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