It may not always feel like it, but I think local government has come a long way when it comes to technology. When I started my public service career in 1994 at the City of Highland Park, we did not own a single personal computer, presentations were on transparencies and overhead projectors, information sharing occurred through interoffice envelopes, and printed Council packets were dropped off at each elected official’s residence. We have come a long way, yet many of us still fall short of unifying our data so we can be good stewards of our communities.
Have you and your team bought into the notion that local government is easy? It is not, particularly when it comes to information systems. Most communities consist of 6-12 departments like Administration; Dispatch; Emergency Management; Engineering; Finance; Fire; Technology; Parks & Recreation; Police; Public Works; Community & Economic Development. Each serving different purposes and requiring specialized skills, processes, and information systems. Bringing that quantity of divergent information systems together can be challenging. Yet that is exactly what we need to do to meet the expectations of the residents and businesses we serve in a modern on-demand culture.
Contributing to this challenge is a software industry that lives primarily at the transaction level within individual departments. These systems, as standalone solutions, bring value to those individual departments, but often at the expense of enterprise integration. These systems often create application silos that further segregate our most important asset (data). One might think that large investments in technology would produce integrated information, but there is only one party motivated to integrate your solutions, and that is you.
In my experience there is no phrase that has gotten more use and less attention than ‘data-silos’. Data silos are more significant than ever because of the abundance of software we buy in local government. To be clear, the problem is not software, it is the lack of discipline and attention we put on our data. Organizations that get the most out of their systems have formalized data strategies and proactively pursue those plans.
Extracting value from our data and systems begins with leadership. As a leader, you get what you emphasize, and we need to reinforce what we want from our data management systems. Without that clarity, our teams will do the best they can (like buy more software) and will not get where you want to go. They are simply doing the best they can, with only a vague idea of what you want.
One of the most important parts of this clarity-first approach is having a leadership team that is completely cohesive and aligned with the clarity you are creating. Any crack in that armor will result in departments heading off in their own direction away from your vision. In addition, what you are going for, needs to be built-in to all your business systems. It needs to be part of recruitment, performance management, tactical and strategic structures, documentation, and organizational portals. You cannot overcommunicate what you want too much.
Some leaders might be reading this article thinking, “How can I do this? I am not an expert in technology.” That is an advantage. Keep reinforcing what you want high-level (the outcome), and when the technocrats drag you into the weeds, gently remind them that your job is to create clarity, and their job is to figure out how to do it. Ask them what is not clear about the outcome; make it clearer when you can. Most importantly, be consistent in your reinforcements.
If you feel your organization could do more to unify your enterprise data, it starts with leadership. Create clear goals, unify your teams, overcommunicate, reinforce in every organizational system and structure, and regularly check-in on progress and alignment. Data depends on leadership, and vice versa