Driving home the message
- By Dibya Sarkar
- Apr 07, 2003
When Costis Toregas moved to Washington, D.C., more than 30 years ago, he wondered whether his doctoral thesis from Cornell University had any practical applications in cities and counties.
His thesis centered on an approach to find the minimum number of fire stations needed for the best response times. With a $70,000 federal grant in hand, he began working on the methodology to help prove his theory.
The work was done for the Technology Application Program (TAP), which at the time was part of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), but the methodology soon found broad support. It was used by Wichita, Kan., Newark, N.J. and Dallas. Four years later, 300 communities across the United States and Canada had implemented it.
Toregas was pleased with his accomplishment, but learned that the methodology didn't necessarily fit the reality of life. It wasn't robust enough to consider all variables and political ramifications — such as employees being laid off if fewer fire stations are needed.
"So that was my initiation into the reality of balancing political fervor, managerial balance and technological capacity," said Toregas, president Public Technology Inc., the nonprofit descendant of TAP based in Washington, D.C.
Those three elements haven't changed to this day, and they still shape how Toregas and PTI approach public service. Politicians "want to do the good work that all their constituents vote them into office to do," he said. "The managers always have a tough task balancing demands and limited resources, and technology keeps rushing ahead."
The mission of PTI — the technology arm of ICMA, the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties (NACo) — has always been to bring technology's benefits to local governments and its citizens. Its members are considered innovators and early adopters that help develop methodologies and test outcome-oriented technologies, paving a path for the rest of the nation.
Toregas, an author and frequent speaker at forums and conferences, has led PTI since 1985. He said that back then, he had to make "impassioned pleas" about technology's significance.
"Today I don't have to do that," he said. "People understand the centrality of technology. But what they still are just [realizing] is that technology empowers them to do things that they could never do before. It's breaking out of the boundaries. It's doing cross-boundary leadership."
In the 1990s, he participated in a federally driven effort called the Intergovernmental Enterprise Panel, which brought together representatives from all levels of government to talk about technology problems and information exchange, but that ended after three years.
"It's interesting that maybe 15 years ago most technology discussions at the federal level would stop with federal requirements or, at most, federal/state requirements," he said. "The word 'local' just wasn't whispered."
However, he continued to push for cross-boundary collaboration because it's faster, cheaper and more effective than going it alone, he said. Some federal agencies recognized that and are partnering with PTI.
For example, PTI is working with the Interior Department on the Geospatial One-Stop Project to facilitate intergovernmental collection and sharing of geographic or spatial data.
Toregas says e-government has provided a real opportunity to form intergovernmental partnerships. To sustain that, he suggests creating metrics to measure the progress of collaborative efforts and "incentivize" them.
"The citizen wants the service and the service may be an amalgamation of federal, state, local," he said. "Who's going to measure the effectiveness of that intergovernmental system? And who's going to incentivize the intergovernmental collaboration? Right now no one. There is no one."
Another major driver for cross- boundary collaboration has been the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "I think [Sept. 11] has made it amply clear that without intergovernmental collaboration, without promoting this kind of boundary-less system, we're all sunk," he said. "No single agency, no single entity, no single office can in fact control the problem."
Larry Naake, NACo's executive director who has worked with Toregas for a number of years, called him a "tremendous visionary and salesman" in expressing the long-term goals of state and local governments.
Toregas says collaboration isn't something that comes easily, but he's at his best and "most happy in work" when he connects with people face-to-face, via e-mail or even on e-mail lists.
"Ultimately, my whole career has been about public service," he said. "I've been in a nonprofit environment working for governments in a collective fashion when I think I could have been doing other things with industry and academia.... But what has driven me so much is this desire to contribute to the public good and to leave behind institutions, mechanisms and thought processes that will help a lot of other people."