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Commentary: As Governments Go Digital, Centralization of Services Is Key

“What if we crowdsource data-sharing agreement templates that can be used as a starting point by any agency? There is so much talent in the community, and people want to help the government to be more effective, so it’s up to the agencies to tap the talent,” writes Jagjit Dhaliwal, deputy CIO for Los Angeles County.

Jagjit Dhaliwal
Jagjit Dhaliwal
There are more than 3,000 counties, and close to 20,000 cities in the United States. There are a lot of forums, associations, advisory boards and consortiums in existence to connect these jurisdictions to share their best practices, lessons learned and innovative solutions. But like any other large ecosystem, “silos” exist in state and local governments that result in inefficiencies and duplication. Ever wonder, why do we have decentralized local implementation for similar business cases across cities and counties? The general opinion is that each jurisdiction has its own localized needs, or difficulties in aligning stakeholders for the common centralized solutions or speed to market itself. Moreover, the security and privacy issues create another hurdle as there may be local or state legislation triggering new processes or boundary conditions. But by doing this, we end up reinventing the wheel, even for basic, no-risk public-facing open residential needs.

Consider a simple example of reporting graffiti, potholes and other issues: Many cities have developed or configured mobile applications to provide services for residents. When a resident relocates from one city to another city, then he/she ends up installing a new mobile app and setting up a new account. A tourist may not install a new application to report an issue while visiting any city for a short period. It’s certainly not a human-centric approach to developing a simple reporting workflow application. Another simple example to consider is the open data portal. Most government agencies have an open data portal to make data accessible to the community. All these portals are low-complexity user interfaces with the ability to let end users access the data sets in different formats. Do we really need to have a decentralized solution for open data? What if there is a one-stop shop for all public data sets? Wikipedia of data? Yes, it requires discipline, framework and protocols to be defined to achieve this goal, but it’s achievable and has value for the community. Another recent debatable example could be the COVID-19 vaccine management system. We have already seen the impact by letting each city and county deploy its own vaccine solutions. Just imagine how much tax dollars and effort can be saved by centralizing these use cases.

Another big issue we face in the public sector is the lack of talent resources. It may be due to the competitive salaries from the private sector or due to budget constraints. However, the next-generation community very much believes in contributing back to the community. Unfortunately, we may not be tapping this talent fully by “crowdsourcing” our efforts. Imagine if Wikipedia had to be developed within the organization(s), would it ever be successful? Crowdsourcing brings a bottom-up creative process. As Daren C. Brabham described in his book “Crowdsourcing in the Public Sector” very well, government crowdsourcing maps well onto long-standing concepts of public participation, deliberative democracy and e-government. It works as a problem-solving model in part by bringing together diverse viewpoints to bear on a single issue.

Consider an example in which the agencies have a lot of data but may not have data analytics expertise. Whenever I speak to residents, they are always looking for data. In all my public engagements, the one common question I get from the audience is “How can we get data?” What if we look for residents’ expertise on data insights, e.g. leveraging the Kaggle community for data science needs? Another example is data definition and standardization efforts. The agencies tend to spend so much time standardizing the data definition which can be crowdsourced so that the data consumers or multiple agencies can share their perspectives on it. Another area could be open protocol or policy development in which the feedback from the residents can broaden the horizon. Each agency spends so much effort on data sharing agreements which are prominently driven by legislation measures. What if we crowdsource data-sharing agreement templates that can be used as a starting point by any agency? There is so much talent in the community, and people want to help the government to be more effective, so it’s up to the agencies to tap the talent.

While centralization and crowdsourcing can bring tremendous value to public agencies, we still are not able to leverage it to an extent. Part of the reason is our target metrics are very much tied to the organization/geographic boundaries. There are no metrics on savings across organizations, rather than within the organization. How can we incentivize our local leaders to take up efforts which are of national interest? I feel that associations like the National Association of Counties (NACo), National League of Cities (NLC), or the state/federal government can play a bigger role in initiating centralized solution efforts. These efforts can be started as open source protocols for common use cases. Academia can have an important role to play in refining crowdsourcing practices for the public good. They can enable an open source toolkit for local governments, which residents can enhance further. The public-sector innovation gets crippled due to budget constraints. So, it’s high time to expand operational excellence levers, be it by sharing costs across agencies or by leveraging the community expertise.

Jagjit Dhaliwal has been the deputy chief information officer in the Los Angeles County Office of the Chief Information Officer since May 2018. He has more than 17 years of IT consulting experience across multiple industry domains, including media and entertainment, telecom, banking, insurance and manufacturing. His main focus is on IT transformation, operations efficiencies, enterprise initiatives, app modernization and adoption of emerging technologies.