Talk of the town

Dallas' Internet site slogan brazenly declares "Dallas, the city that works: vibrant, diverse, progressive."

Although Dallas officials might say the city is progressive in a number of ways, Mayor Ron Kirk believes that in the Information Age, municipal leaders must be especially progressive about technology. Technology, he said, is now fundamental to governing.

"Technology is changing the way we live and the way we work," Kirk said. "And it's making it easier for us to serve our citizens."

Mayors in cities across the country echo this philosophy. In recent interviews, Kirk and the mayors of Seattle, Chicago, Boston and Atlanta talked technology — specifically, how they see it affecting their cities and their approach to leadership. These mayors aren't yet tech wizards, certainly not Dilberts by a long shot. They likely never will be. Most of them don't show up at city council meetings with cell phones and pagers. They don't log notes onto laptops or let handheld computers guide them through their schedules. Yet they know enough to surround themselves with tech-savvy staff members and to do what it takes to establish their cities as technologically progressive.

To these city leaders, technology isn't a panacea. They see its downsides — which range from cost, to staff adaptability, to residents' accessibility, to a loss of the "personal touch." Still, they say the positives outweigh the negatives.

There's no hesitation when these mayors say technology plays a pivotal role in how they communicate with residents and the way they do business — and it will continue to increase in importance. Together, these cities shelled out millions of dollars toward technology in 2000. In Seattle, information technology costs reached about $148 million citywide. Boston allocated $500,000 solely for Internet-related hardware, software, outside developers and salaries.

"Technology is vitally important in government," said Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. "Technology can be a tool to streamline the way government operates. It allows us to use the resources that the taxpayers have provided for us more efficiently. In Chicago, technology is critical to fulfilling my vision of [a] city government that is efficient, effective and accountable."

Seattle: Circumventing Bureaucracy

Every year, technology becomes more critical, especially as the Internet "creates massive new opportunities for easier, faster service to citizens," Seattle Mayor Paul Schell said.

"From paying utility bills or getting a pet license to obtaining a construction permit, city services that used to require a trip downtown, parking hassles and a wait on a long line are increasingly accessible directly from people's home PCs," he said.

If money were no object, Schell would like to take Seattle even further into the Information Age.

"As a first step, I think I might accelerate the process to get our services online," he said. "At the same time, I'd supply each of our neighborhood service centers, which are placed in neighborhoods around the city, with a bank of computer terminals, providing an easy way for all residents to access city government, whether or not they have a computer at home."

And Schell himself is learning a lot about governing in these changing times. In addition to his interaction with people via the city's Web site (www.cityofseattle.net), some of Schell's friends recently started an e-mail list called "Schell Mail." Through that, the mayor posts messages and responds to e-mail messages from constituents, reaching about 4,500 subscribers.

Seattle Councilman Jim Compton is working to bring public meetings to the Internet — an effort that Schell supports. He wants to make interactive governing a reality, saying if people could watch meetings online, officials could reach more residents, not just the few who show up regularly. The online meetings won't happen this year, but Schell expects they will soon.

"But most importantly, I think that technology will allow citizens to circumvent bureaucracy," he said. "It's impossible to run a city without a bureaucracy, but citizens shouldn't have to learn their way around it to get what they need. One-stop shopping, good customer service...call it what you will. Rather than having to find the right building, floor, office, counter and queue, or rather than getting bounced into voice mail, citizens will go straight to what they need with a few clicks of the mouse."

Chicago: Reaching Out to People

Chicago's Daley said technology has proven its worth time and again. He points to the citywide service request system that works in conjunction with the 311 non-emergency hot line.

The system takes customer service messages from citizens, such as requests to have a tree planted, reports of graffiti or complaints about an abandoned vehicle. Then it tracks those requests from intake to resolution.

"This gives me critical information, like how long it takes to deliver service, what types of services are most demanded and how resources should be allocated," Daley said. "All of us in city government are here to serve the citizens, and this system gives me the tools to measure our performance."

Daley considers his Web site (www.ci.chi.il.us/mayor) a direct communications link to city residents — no filters or middlemen like the media to dilute or misinterpret his messages. His site boasts a newsroom with up-to-date press releases and the text of his key speeches. And it's popular, receiving 50 to 100 e-mail messages a day from constituents. The city's site in general receives about 3.5 million hits weekly.

Daley advocates the convenience of technology — how it allows residents to access information from their homes, offices, neighborhood technology centers and libraries. He thinks the World Wide Web can help people take control in their communities, for example, by using the city's online searchable crime database. "Information is power in the war on crime," Daley said.

But Daley sees technology's limits. Too often, he said, people ignore the scope of the process and the staff changes necessary to make the technology beneficial. "Systems won't help you if you don't fix the underlying processes or if you fail to train the people who will be using the technology," he said, adding that technology is very expensive and correct implementation can be time- intensive. "You have to make sure that there is a cost- benefit or payback potential for every use of technology. Otherwise, you're wasting taxpayers' money," he said.

Daley wants to see government become "more transparent" — he wants information about the city's business dealings posted on the Web. He wants to improve the efficiency of city government by giving field inspectors handheld devices so they can update data files from the field. And he wants more personal computers in libraries and community centers.

Boston: Putting the Web to Work

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino takes the city's Web site seriously. He crows about www.cityofboston.com — maintained by a staff of six.

The site recently won the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Best E-Citizen Site Award. Traffic doubles every 18 months.

To Menino, the site is one of the most useful resources for residents and visitors who are looking for information about Boston and city government.

He sees technology as chief among the city's priorities — right there with public school reform, affordable housing, residential safety and business development. Menino said the digital divide must be closed and that his administration intends to "use new technology to reach out to as many people as possible."

"Here in Boston, we're always looking for ways to put technology to work for the people," Menino said.

Menino's office has installed computer labs in community centers throughout Boston and in the main library and its 26 branches. He knows not every Boston resident has access to a computer at home or at work, so it becomes necessary for the city to furnish the technology.

Jennifer Latchford, Boston's deputy chief information officer, said the city views its Web site mostly as a communication tool.

"It has information that might be difficult to get...for example, what the latest inspection data is on a given restaurant, information that the public is entitled to under the Freedom of Information [Act], but may not be easy to get," she said. "The city is trying to present itself as a resource instead of just a regulator."

Latchford predicts that within the next five years, almost any service available at City Hall will be offered via the Net. Menino agrees. He is committed to keeping Boston moving rapidly along the Information Super-highway as fast as he can given time, money and planning constraints.

But if he had his druthers, Menino's wish list would read something like this:

"It would include enough bandwidth to conduct distance learning effectively with two-way streaming video, effective digital signature technology that would enable users to access everything in City Hall online," he said. "It would also include infrastructure across the entire city so that all residents could have the advantages of high-speed access, which would help foster small-office and home- office businesses and give all schools, libraries and after-school programs the bandwidth they need to use the Internet effectively."

Dallas: Cautiously Advancing

Mayor Kirk said he and his administration are constantly on the lookout for ways to make Dallas' Internet site (www.dallascityhall.org), already advanced, even better. In November, the city signed off on a $15 million plan for technology improvements, including a new communications infrastructure.

The mayor wants Dallas to have a more interactive Web site, including an expanded 311 call center and a more advanced city cable channel. That may not be far off. Dallas CIO Dan McFarland expects that within six months, the city will have a fully integrated voice and data convergent network that will allow for voice, data and video over the same infrastructure. McFarland wants residents to be able to have some level of access to City Hall 24-hours a day.

But as he works to improve online services, Kirk worries that residents may become too reliant on technology. He said that often, "the best way to interact with citizens is face-to-face."

"We'll never get to the point where an online city hall is as effective as a bricks and mortar one, but it will certainly make life a little easier for some of our citizens," he said.

Kirk said all municipal officials must realize that the Internet can be both a blessing and a curse. As an appointee to the federal Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce, a panel created to study the taxation impact of transactions on the Internet, Kirk said e-commerce "holds the potential to seriously erode traditional state and local sales tax [revenue]." He has been visible and outspoken in the tax fray.

"The goal here is just to protect the millions of dollars of revenue that might be lost otherwise with no sales tax on the Internet," said Kirk, who with the panel is developing recommendations on how government officials should handle Internet taxation.

With an estimated 20 percent Latino population, Dallas is one of the few cities with a bilingual site. Kirk said that although government is often slow to react to technology, his city is making headway. Kirk hopes to continue to expand the opportunity for services online, including paying bills and getting building permits.

Atlanta: Knowledge is Power

Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell is national chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Commission on Technology and speaks nationally on the digital divide. He considers the city's Web site (www.ci.atlanta.ga.us) a starting point to reach out to the community and to close the economic gap.

The site includes information on technology programs set up to help bridge the digital divide.

"Knowledge is power, and technology can be a great equalizer," Campbell said. "The Internet provides free information to anyone who has access to a computer and the knowledge of how powerful this tool is."

Atlanta established an Office of Community Technology and sought the help of key corporate and educational leaders on technology planning matters. The office then studied the community's needs and resources.

This month, Atlanta had plans to open three community cybercenters offering free computer and Internet courses. This past summer, about 1,000 senior citizens graduated from the city's first cybercamp. More tech centers and camps are in the works.

Campbell said knowing how to operate a computer and use the Internet to conduct research are crucial to being a functioning member of today's society.

Jules Maderos, Atlanta's deputy CIO, said using the Internet as a research tool has saved the city time and money. It's a cheaper alternative to calling other cities, something city employees need to do often.

"A lot of times, I'll have a question, "What are they doing in a certain area?'" she said. "Now, I'll look at the other cities' Web sites first. It saves me time and it saves time for the other cities. Instead of having to take my phone call or return my phone call, the information might be right there on their Web site already."

Kelly is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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