Learning the value of sharing
- By Barry Smith
- Jul 02, 2001
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
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
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
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.