Learning the value of sharing

I am best classified as a "confused capitalist." Although I was born and

raised in the private sector — albeit before the prevalence of stock options

and MBA degrees — I am now information technology director for a suburb

of Washington, D.C., where I can see the impact municipalities have on society.

Yet I am concerned about the costs associated with our services and wonder

if we could make technology more affordable by banding together for joint

purchases and to share information — just as we do for other services and

products.

Two things got me thinking about this topic. The first was a request

from a neighboring municipality for the source code to a few of our in-house

systems. Because the cost of sharing this information was essentially free

and because I was not trying to retain any intellectual property rights,

I gladly sent the source code along with an offer to provide limited support.

Since that exchange, their staff members have shared their expertise by

helping us with our geographic information system program.

In the second instance, managers from a small municipality asked me

to help with a quick assessment of their technology needs and goals. They

had limited automation, no file server and no one on staff with "technology"

in his or her job description. I gave them some ideas, but couldn't really

help them move forward beyond suggesting how they should spend their money.

Their situation raised an interesting possibility: What if a municipality

or a group of municipalities developed, hosted and supported one or more

technology services for their colleagues for free or for a nominal recovery

fee? Perhaps by sharing the applications we develop for our own purposes,

we could help the many small to mid-sized governments that don't want to

or can't effectively manage technology.

Private-sector companies do a good job of convincing the public that

their software and services are far superior to shareware or open-source

software. This may be true, and I would actually hope that their integration

and consulting services are beyond what individual developers could offer

to the average user through an online forum. In my proposed model, just

as with open-source software, the private sector could play a significant

role in supporting and integrating our systems. In fact, maybe we start

by distributing the shareware version, and then vendors offer upgrades to

their more functional, better-supported software. By working with private-sector

companies, we can find a win-win situation that benefits governments large

and small.

My quest for a collaborative solution to municipalities' technology

woes has been strengthened by the following success stories.

Many cities have come together to share a public-safety program. This

is often a clear-cut business case because the infrastructure and staffing

required to provide reliable, around-the-clock operations are better shared

among municipalities. If a jointly funded, jointly managed public-safety

system works, why not a jointly owned technology staff and infrastructure?

Perhaps a few mid-sized and smaller cities could form a steering committee

to act as a strategic planning group for municipalities lacking the technology

staff to support their needs.

Tim O'Donnell, city manager for Brea, Calif., has done just that by

structuring his city's management information systems division to provide

services to neighboring municipalities.

Meanwhile, Larry Singer, Georgia's chief information officer and executive

director of the Georgia Technology Authority, has spearheaded a nationwide

initiative to establish a clearinghouse for state governments to share software

and best practices. I know of many online government forums where we share

strategic technology plans and memos, but is it also possible to share components

and source code? And could the states provide services for their counties

and municipalities?

Last fall, the League of Minnesota Cities issued a request for proposals

for Web site management and hosting. The league has the option of providing

training support for its members and the option of owning the developed

code. By pushing forward such a concept, municipal leagues can help accelerate

the adoption of the technology throughout their membership.

I know that there are downsides to venturing into collaborative efforts,

and I don't have all of the answers, but it's an intriguing topic. After

all, we are in this for the public good, so there shouldn't be any harm

in doing something that benefits our constituents and also helps our colleagues.

Surely, what goes around comes around.

Smith is information technology director for Gaithersburg, Md.

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