In San Mateo, Calif., the information technology department is launching its process to develop a new five-year plan. The plan will map out the needs and requirements for the San Francisco Bay community of 750,000 residents.

But Jon Walton, the county’s chief information officer, knows well the perils of trying to predict the future of public sector technology. All he has to do is look at the last five-year plan.

“There have been major changes in the county-wide system since the last five-year plan,” he says. “What we’re really trying to do is build consensus within the organization on where we want to be, so that we’re all on the same page.”

At a time when technological change is measured in nanoseconds, experts in information systems are focused on longer-term trends that will position their communities to take advantage of the convenience and efficiency of technology. At the same time, they are working overtime to ensure the safety of their systems and protect vital information from hackers. Regardless of the benefits and potential dangers of technology, everyone agrees that technology in 2020 will only be more important.

“Every elected leader understands the role that technology plays,” says Hardik Bhatt, former chief information officer for Chicago and now a senior director at Cisco Systems, a California-based technology corporation. “There have been tremendous changes in the last five to seven years and the role it has come to take in people’s lives. People are only now learning the value of technology.”

Among the key changes that experts anticipate by 2020 are:

• Wider acceptance of the cloud for operations and storage
• Greater connectivity between platforms and hardware
• More cooperation among governmental units
• Broader interest from the private sector in developing solutions for the government sector

Underlying these broad trends are drivers of change including the general acceptance and expanding use of mobility, the need for security and disaster recovery of governmental systems and the intense competition for talented workers.

Not all of these changes were anticipated even five years ago. Across the economy, the past five years have seen an explosion in the use of apps and online services that have simplified accessing information and products. It was only in April 2010 that Apple launched the iPad, which offered multi-touch interaction with multimedia formats. By June 2011, Americans were spending more time using apps than using the internet. By 2013, smart phones were outselling feature phones.

At the same time, governments struggled to advance their technologies while property tax and sales tax revenues were in freefall during the Great Recession. Today, government information technology officials are working to meet the rising expectations of their citizenry and their own internal constituencies.

“During the hard times, we focused on maintaining what we had and put off new initiatives,” says Ken Price, the information services director in Littleton, Colo. “Now, we’re playing catch-up on new projects.”

Experts in the field note a number of trends facing IT leaders as they plan for the next several years. According to a recent study by IDC, an international technology research firm, the key drivers of change will be:

• Urban population growth that stresses city infrastructure and resources
• Steadily increasing competition for skilled and talented workers, and an increasing reliance on partners, clouds, and global sourcing for IT
• The impact of severe weather patterns and climate departure
• The exponential growth in IT devices and the increasing use of social media by citizens
• The shift in buying power from the central IT division to departments and agencies

“Demographics are changing very quickly,” says Levent Sucuoglu, the information technology director in Tamarac, Fla. “There is an expectation to have more mobility in services, moving many more services to apps or the web.”

As a result, information officers in public sector communities are facing new challenges that are forcing them to straddle the line between the often unrestrained private sector technology world with the more formalized world of local government.

“The culture of IT will play an important role in managing growth,” says Ruthbea Clarke, a research director at IDC. “There will be the emergence of the new chief information officer who will bring open data, transparency and digital services to a functional level.”

These CIOs will also have to face other forces buffeting the public sector, says Alan Shark, executive director of Public Technology Institute, an Alexandria, Va.-based non-profit that focuses on technology issues impacting public sector thought-leaders.

Among the most important, he says, are concerns about cyber security and the need to mitigate risk, even if 100 percent security cannot be guaranteed. “There will be more of a move into active monitoring,” Shark says, adding there will also be a need for additional personnel. “If you don’t have a secure system, nothing else matters.”

Among the other trends he and IDC foresee are:

• Cloud-based solutions – More software will be accessed from virtual servers rather than operated on local desktops and servers.
• Internet of Things – Data will be connected across platforms and between and among machines.
• Data-mapping – Consumers will not only want access to more data but will ask to be able to see it and work with it, often using mapping to visualize the information.
• Capacity sharing – Groups of governments will share resources.
• Private-sector solutions – Private industry will see more opportunity to provide services and applications that meet the growing demand of the public sector.

A recent survey of technology leaders by American City & County magazine demonstrated the growing interest in cloud computing. While about 50 percent of respondents indicated that they use cloud services today, almost 80 percent predicted that they would be using the cloud in five years.  Interestingly, the same leaders saw a fall-off of interest in social media, from almost 80 percent today to about 55 percent in five years.

Walton County, Fla., has been using social media as a means of broadening participation in decision-making, says Cory Godwin, the chief deputy tax collector.  “We are now getting multiple channels of feedback, immediate response,” he says. “The beauty of it is that we get a better feeling of public sentiment, rather than just the people who show up at a meeting.”

Godwin says that transparency is raising new issues that hadn’t been considered before. Today, storage of documents is a challenge and old definitions of public records are being re-examined in light of their accessibility online. “Still, there are tremendous opportunities for new solutions to old problems,” he says, noting that within five years drivers’ licenses might work like credit cards and be renewed from a central location. “It will be a challenge to let go of tradition.”

A source of the pull toward new approaches is residents who have grown accustomed to conducting business online and want the same convenience from their local government. “It’s all about change in how cities use technology,” says Jeff Konishi, IT director in Amarillo, Texas. “Citizens are so used to dealing with Amazon.com and Google. If government doesn’t offer technology they are used to, they will see us as obsolete. We don’t want to force them to come into city hall. We want to make the service available to them.”

Konishi adds that operations in government have not always been the best for creating efficient systems to deliver technology. “A big challenge in government is siloed departments,” he says.  “We have to convince people they can get the exact same service and not be duplicative.”

In Potter County, Texas, the government is converting its aging infrastructure to cloud technology, which resolves the silo problems facing other communities, says Jason Patrick, the county’s IT director. By taking the software and operating systems off desktops and into the cloud, the IT department can customize a computer for a new employee in five minutes instead of requiring a full day of work and can rebuild a desktop hit by a virus at the touch of a button. The conversion, when completed in the next several years, will also end the wasteful practice where each city department had a single person assigned to an operation, which was convenient when it worked, but was duplicative. “It’s simplified management greatly,” he says.

Another culture change in the Texas Panhandle community has been impressing on employees the importance of maintaining the security of their data. “It’s a battle culturally,” Patrick says. “Many employees have been here 25 or 30 years, and they don’t look at the information as that valuable. It’s public information. They don’t understand that we need to build a barrier to keep the bad guys out from divorce or police records.”

With all of the security threats, Patrick says he knows what he doesn’t want to happen in the next five years. “They don’t understand the political implications of information going public. It’s horrendous,” he says. “We don’t want to be on the front page.”

In San Mateo County, in the heart of the nation’s technology center, Walton has to balance the need for security with the expectations of residents who live and breathe cyberspace and expect to have access to all information all of the time.

“Everybody has two or three devices,” he says. “Each device is a potential entry point. Our big question is, how much do we focus on security and at the same time enable the use of mobile technology? It’s balancing customer satisfaction versus security. How do we accomplish both at the same time?”

Walton says the county has a plan in place to upgrade its aging infrastructure, which has suffered during the severe recession of the last several years. He also sees opportunity in two areas to advance the technology in the county – cooperation with other governmental organizations and partnerships with private businesses.

For example, Walton has begun discussions with the school district on the possibility of bringing fiber into the schools when the county is working on roads in the vicinity. “There seems to be an opportunity,” he says. “It would make sense for them to join us.  It would be less cost for them than to build on their own.”

As for public/private partnerships, Walton is enthusiastic. “I’m a fan of partnerships,” he says. “Some are trying to sell something. It’s a sticky subject. But others are willing to come in to help create programs. I’m open to tapping the intellectual capital of the community.”

Walton also notes that the increasing ability of government to deliver more data to citizens in the name of transparency is a double-edged sword. “We are able to collect the data, but where does it go?” he asks. “How do we make it useful?  At the end of the day, there has to be a use for the data, to help us organize our lives. How do we combine the data to get systemic changes?”

As part of the effort to harness the value of technology, the county has sought out external advisory groups and worked with the various county departments to gain better understanding of user needs, Walton says. “We are collaborative by nature,” he says. “We want to look outside the box, to see what’s going on worldwide.”

Shark of PTI says the emerging importance of the chief information officer may be one of the most significant changes in the government technology area by 2020. “Government will have to decide who makes the decisions about technology,” he says. “Someone needs to orchestrate the technology, make decisions that bring things together, rather than everyone buying their own thing.”

Without this coordination, governments can miss out on the value of technological change. “Lots of governments have lost control of policy,” he says. “More attention has to be paid to find the person with the talent to help coordinate the effort throughout the enterprise.”

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