Collaborate: "Governments don't do that"

The other day while enjoying breakfast with a consultant friend I heard her talk of about how smaller local governments didn’t have the resources to afford her, or her firms services.

Hogwash I thought! Fresh from the launch of at the Gov2.0 Summit I jumped in and asked, surely a couple of the smaller municipalities with similar needs could come together, jointly spec out a project and pool their budgets. It seems like a win-win-win, budgets go further, better services are offered and, well, of less interest but still nice, my friend gets to work on rolling out some nice technologies in the community in which she lives.

The response?

“Government’s doesn’t work that way.”

Followed up by…

“Why would we work with one of those other communities, they are our competitors.”

Once you’ve stopped screaming at your monitor… (yes, I’m happy to give you a few seconds to vent that frustration) let me try to explain in as cool as a manor as possible why this makes no sense. And while I don’t live in the numerous municipalities that border on Vancouver, if you do, consider writing you local councillor/mayor. I think your IT department is wasting your tax dollars.

First, government’s don’t work that way? Really? So an opportunity arises for you to save money and offer better services to your citizens and you’re going to say no because the process offends you in some way? I’m pretty sure there’s a chamber full of council people and a mayor who feel pretty differently about that.

The fact is, that governing a city is going to get more complicated. The expectations of citizens are going to become greater. There is going to be a gap, and no amount of budget is going to cover it. Citizens increasingly have access to top tier services on the web – they know what first class systems look like. They look like Google, Amazon, Travelocity, etc… and vary rarely your municipal website site and the services it offers. It almost doesn’t matter where you are reading this from, I’m willing to bet your city’s site isn’t world class. Thanks to the web however your citizens, even the ones who never leave your bedroom community, are globe traveling super consumers of the web. They are getting faster, better and more effective service on and off the web. You might want to consider this because as the IT director in a city of 500,000 people you probably don’t have the resources to keep up.

Okay, so sharing a budget to be able to build better online infrastructure (or whatever) for your city makes sense. But now you’re thinking – we can’t work with that neighboring community… their our competitors.

Stop. Stop right there.

That community is not your competitor. Let me tell you right now. No one is moving to West Van over Burnaby because their website is better, or their garbage service is more efficient. They certainly aren’t moving because you offer webbased forms on your city’s website and the other guys (annoyingly) make you print out a PDF. That’s not influencing the 250K-500K decision about where I live. Basically, if it doesn’t involve the quality of the school it probably isn’t factoring in.

Hell even other cities like Toronto, Calgary or Seattle aren’t your competitor. If anyone is moving there it’s likely because of family or a job. Maybe if you really got efficient then a marginally lower muncipal tax would help, but if that were the case, then partner with as many cities as possible and benefit from some collaborative economies of scale… cause now you kicking the but of the 99% of cities that aren’t collaborating and sharing costs.

And, of course, this isn’t limited to cities. Pretty much any level of government could benefit from pooling budgets to sponsor some commonly speced out projects.

It’s depressing to see that the biggest challenge to driving down the costs of running a city (or any government) aren’t going to technological, but a cultural obsession with the belief that everybody else is different, competing and not as good as us.

9 thoughts on “Collaborate: "Governments don't do that"

  1. Anonymous

    Hello David,

    I haven’t commented on your blog before but wanted to share a bit of my own experience on this subject. I work for a regional government organization that helps set regional policy on a broad spectrum of topics and has organized a significant amount of regional geographic data from out partner governments. We formed a consortium back in 1992 to purchase regional air photos that has saved millions of dollars over the years. At the end of the day the cost savings far outweighs most other concerns.

    The region operates on the assumption that even though we have different boundaries it all functions as one effective place. I think that this logic will be applied to more technology in the near future. I can see possibilities for a consortium around cloud computing or other types of infrastructure. The net result seems to be that we all benefit more than if we had acted alone.

  2. Karen Quinn Fung

    I think it’s a difficult case to say that cities aren’t competing with each other at all. Localism (is that the term?) and place-based pride is alive and well. If nothing else, local governments compete for talented staff – one suburban planning department I know of was recently halved as staff were poached by the City of Vancouver for higher wages as well as the prestige of working for CoV. It’s hard to tell overworked staff (some but not all of whom probably would love to work in Vancouver themselves) this civic pecking order, where the CoV has the money and clout to do these things, doesn’t exist, but I’m open to alternative explanations as to how this doesn’t have to be read as a negative.I’m not even going to touch relations at the regional level, because I really don’t know much about that, but I would suspect that has something to do with it as well. Bottom line: yes, it’s stupid and petty and long-ingrained and unreasonable, but most cultures are and there are probably some other important stories underlying why the resentment and fear of collaboration or even coordination exists. I definitely agree with you that it’s more than worth them taking the time to figure out and work through the barriers.

  3. Philip Ashlock

    In the US, there are a number of collaborative regional alliances that have been established for a while. It’s becoming increasingly common to consolidate IT infrastructure and services at the county and state level. Most of these are citied on the Civic Commons wiki, but to list a few: eCityGov pools IT resources for about 45 cities in Washington State, CGAIT has about 50 members throughout Colorado, and the States of Utah and Michigan are providing cloud computing infrastructure for public agencies throughout their states. I’ve heard of it becoming more common for counties to take on IT responsibilities for their cities and Oakland County, Michigan has been cited as one example. From what I understand, there are far more collaborative initiatives in Europe, hence things like OSOR.

    To be clear, the US examples I cited are pretty much all cases of consolidated infrastructure rather than governments collaboratively building something they can each use on their own (like a piece of software). While there are some cultural hurdles to overcome in terms of competitiveness, I think the reason why governments collaborate so little is based more around a shortsightedness of the benefits. Initially, it might take additional time and effort to build something collaboratively or to effectively package an open source project. The ROI is more clear in the long term when an open source project can scale out its base of both users and contributors while making the project more robust and feature rich at no expense to the original author. This type of strategy requires vision and an initial investment in collaboration that is hard to find in short-sighted risk-averse governments. With Civic Commons, I think the strategy will be to really highlight projects that are already ripe for sharing and then use those to emphasize other collaborative opportunities.

  4. Jon Stahl

    Now that I’ve stopped to pick my jaw up off the floor, two great examples of collaborative government-sector app development are and The former is about collaborative website tools for local/regional scale governments and is global in scope, but primarily Europe-centric. The latter is a collaboration among state library systems here in the US, originated in Oregon. Both are using Plone, the popular and powerful open-source CMS as their heart, which of course enables them to leverage open-source community developer resources far beyond what even these substantial collaborative efforts could wield on their own.

  5. Nina Ilnyckyj

    Do you have any ideas, Thom, on something that a cross-jurisdictional team could work on? I am thinking that IPAC’s new Public Service Without Borders would be a really nice way to get some real collaboration started within the bowels of bureaucracy (Public Service Execs and politicians are important to set direction but I think that in parallel to those modes of collaboration, that regular public servants could make something cool happen).

  6. boris

    There are examples of this happening, but they are few and far between. I have seen some libraries working together, but that is pretty far down the “government” totem pole.

    I have directly seen school districts in the Metro Vancouver area not working together.

    I have found that the main way that cooperation happens is when there is a consultant in the middle that can negotiate between multiple entities. Want a $50K feature? Talk to 5 entities and get $15K from each (yes, I know that adds up to more than $50K – it’s the overhead of having to wrangle multiple orgs).

    I wish that the people & organizations would be more proactive in thinking about this themselves, but the concept of open source, open data, and code & data re-use (or even, building with modularity in mind) are not widespread enough. Education, education, education!

  7. Pingback: Top agencies still at risk for cybersecurity attack | CrucialPointLLC

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