Municipalities shouldn’t go it alone on IT

Potholes abound for DPWs; coordination could help

EVERY ONE OF US relies on the services of local public works departments, pretty much every day, from morning to evening, in one way or another.

Think for a moment about everything public works departments do for our region. They maintain roads and sidewalks, haul garbage, collect hazardous household waste, mow fields, install traffic signals, trim trees, replace bulbs in street lights, service water/sewer mains, fix municipal vehicles, clean catch basins, sweep the streets, store salt and sand, manage public buildings, and paint crosswalks. They clear the snow.  Some of the work is done as planned routine, some as cracks appear, and some in response to crises. Statewide the operations account for well over a billion dollars of public funds.

Through decades of practice, DPW teams have figured out how to deliver all of these services on tight budgets to keep Massachusetts well maintained. Now DPW leaders are figuring out how to leverage information technology to make their operations even more efficient.

It is not easy. In the first place, for all they do, DPW managers have not spent their careers purchasing or developing information systems, implementing them, and learning how to get the systems right. (Managers across sectors struggle to update information technology for this reason.) Second, IT projects cost a lot, not only for the price of the software, but also for all of the time managers need to spend determining the best systems to purchase, dealing with procurement headaches, re-engineering work processes, and training employees, as well as gaining their buy-in. These costs are especially high for the early movers who cannot learn from their peers in other communities. Figure into the setup costs the risk of failure: the system you purchase or develop might not end up serving your needs. Anecdotal reports indicate that the failure rate among government IT projects is high.

The early adopters provide a benefit to the rest of the region: models for everyone else to follow, or mistakes to avoid. City and town leaders, though, are weighing local benefits against local costs, and the reality is that many IT projects, for the early movers, do not provide benefits greater than the significant implementation costs, especially when the risk of failure is factored in.

Nonetheless, there are early movers, and efforts by the regional planning agencies, university centers, and the Commonwealth to support those early movers. Springfield, Newton, Boston, and Somerville have 311 call centers with IT systems for tracking constituents’ requests for services from multiple departments. Haverhill’s DPW is implementing a new system for tracking work orders, part of a four-municipality program assisted by an IT manager at the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission. Several other communities have been experimenting with new systems for managing work orders as well. Brockton, Boston, and Springfield are using GPS to track snow operations. Wellesley has a strong information system for managing its fleet of vehicles. Somerville is piloting an app to track work done in the field, and uses data analysis to prioritize the paving of roads. Many municipalities now have remote-read meter systems. Several municipalities are mapping work requests using GIS.  To reduce the digging up of recently resurfaced or reconstructed streets, Boston’s Public Works Department built an application for utility companies, private contractors, developers, and city agencies to make reservations to dig into streets.  Boston also purchased software for constituents to look up schedules and instructions for the collection of trash and recycling.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) is managing Commonwealth Connect, an app for residents to report problems such as broken street lights, potholes, and storm damage and receive updates on the resolution of problems, via smart phone or computer. Approximately 80 communities are using the application, which also has some back-end capabilities to help DPWs manage the work associated with the requests that come in. The Massachusetts Office of Technology (MassIT) has two staff people working with municipalities and school districts to provide technical assistance, share best practices, and facilitate collaboration. The Collins Center for Public Management, based at UMass Boston, has been embedding analysts in several DPWs to help managers make use of the data they already collect, giving them a better foundation for improving their data systems.

DPWs are only at the beginning of their digital evolution. So far, no DPWs in the state have comprehensive and fully integrated data systems. Instead, they have built or purchased multiple systems and databases or created spreadsheets to track different functions such as the call center, facilities, fleet management, budget planning, water metering, and inventory management. The separate data systems often lack unique identifiers on data that would enable integration across systems and spreadsheets. The front-end modules for communicating with constituents are generally not matched with robust back-end IT systems for managing the work. For many additional reasons, the systems can be cumbersome; for example, when workers cannot enter data in the field, administrative staff have the significant burden of keying in data at the end of the day. Data quality is also a common problem, with insufficient staff training on data entry protocols and limited auditing of the data. Data maintenance understandably can take a back seat to tackling the next crisis or chipping away at a backlog of needed repairs.

The long-term vision is for DPWs to have integrated and comprehensive systems – that look similar across communities. Work requests generated through the customer-facing modules will be integrated with work orders in the preventative maintenance schedule. As workers are dispatched, the system will track task completion, labor hours, and inventory, linking work completed to finance, HR, and procurement data. DPWs will have asset-tracking systems to give the municipality a record of each tree trimmed, water main serviced, and light bulb replaced. The work will be GIS-mapped. All functions of public works – water, buildings, parks, recycling, forestry, streets, etc. – will be covered. Managers will be motivated to ensure data quality, as accurate information will make their jobs easier.

Managers will have new tools to plan, prioritize, assign, track, and assess work. Managers and workers in the field will have access, via smart phone or tablet, to real time information on the progress of work. Crews responding to a water leak or a sewer backup, for example, will have access to water and sewer maps in the field for faster resolution of the problem. Managers and staff will be able to find new solutions to civic challenges by analyzing data never before available. They will become more responsive to constituents. They will be able to make better decisions about outsourcing or insourcing work, or partnering with other municipalities on work.  They will be able to observe trends in performance over time and to make comparisons across municipalities.

There are many possible routes to realize the long-term vision.  The first option is to stay the course — let municipalities figure out the IT systems largely on their own, with occasional assistance from the state, university centers, and regional planning agencies.

Software companies are improving their products for DPWs through iterations; as the software gets better, DPWs will have an easier time implementing it.  Also, over time, as DPW managers retire or move, new managers will often upgrade information systems along with the other reforms they implement.

Yet, there are several reasons to increase the level of cross-municipal coordination and support from the state, regional planning agencies, or others.  In the first place, ideally, many municipalities would have similar IT systems, based on common data standards, to enable cross-municipal comparisons and greater coordination in service delivery.  Second, it is inefficient for managers from hundreds of municipalities to figure out their information systems on their own, especially when the work they are tracking is so similar, and upgrading IT is so time consuming.  Third, systems purchased in bulk will cost less per community.  Why should each municipality negotiate its own contracts? Central management of cloud-based servers for DPW data systems might make sense. Fourth, some issues are so important and tricky, such as the security and privacy of municipal data, that local experimentation may not be the best way to address the risks.  Fifth, local managers who have not already overseen IT upgrades could benefit from guidance from experienced IT practitioners (who have worked with the same departments in other municipalities) when they update their systems.  Finally, since the pioneers face relatively higher costs and risks in implementing new information systems, the cohort of early movers may be smaller than ideal, unless outside support is offered.

Greater coordination and support could happen through many different organizational mechanisms. (The options are generally relevant for the entire municipal enterprise, not only public works.)  Professional associations, involving municipal managers of IT, public works, and procurement, could offer more opportunities for training, networking, and sharing of best practices.  The state might offer grants for municipalities to hire shared IT staff to upgrade systems together.  Alternatively, MassIT could build a larger team to support municipal information systems, perhaps modeled after the United States Digital Service that embeds IT managers (as well as coders, designers, procurement specialists, and analysts) in government agencies.  Or, a support team could be built up within a regional planning agency or another organization.  A different model would be a cross-sector initiative, with the state, municipal leaders, regional planning agencies, universities, and technology companies around the table.  A more radical overhaul would be to establish a quasi-governmental agency to support municipal information systems.

Before policymakers choose a route forward, they might want to conduct research to understand what resources are now available and to establish a more detailed vision for IT in public works.  The research could include:

An inventory of information systems that the larger DPWs now use. What databases, spreadsheets, or paper-based systems do they use to track tree trims? Vehicle repairs? Constituent calls?  Work orders? Which systems do the managers think work well?  What are the challenges and inadequacies?  Have they purchased software that has gone unimplemented or partially implemented?  Which crews or managers use laptops, tablets, or smart phones in the field? Which vehicles are equipped with GPS?

A vision for IT in DPWs. What kind of information systems do the managers and IT experts think that DPWs should have? What areas of their work would benefit the most from better data collection, organization, and analysis?

An inventory of resources – staff, budgetary, and technical – that are already available to be leveraged to achieve the vision. What staffing is now in place – in the state, regional planning agencies, supporting organizations, and municipalities (for example, municipal IT departments) – to support municipal IT upgrades?  What funding sources can now be leveraged by DPWs looking to upgrade their systems?  What software, apps, and hardware are now available for purchase?

Based on this research, policymakers can determine how to use current resources and mobilize new resources to improve IT in DPWs most efficiently.  It could be risky and expensive to update a hundred or more municipalities at one time, while communities are still experimenting with what works.  Deep support might be offered strategically in pilot communities where leaders have demonstrated commitment to improve their information systems. As successful models are established, they can be brought to scale.  One consideration is whether the development of new data systems is needed or if software already available for purchase is sufficient; different staff skills are needed for product development versus the procurement of existing products.

Leaders in the effort might consider if some technology needs are universal for all public works departments, and what the particular needs might be for small versus large communities, urban versus rural, and affluent versus fiscally strapped.  Different approaches might be needed for Cambridge, Orange, and Duxbury.  Also, while centralized systems have their benefits, they can also be problematic.  Each municipality participating in a centralized system might require some customization to meet the municipality’s particular needs; the resulting system can be costly and complex, and very difficult to upgrade. In some cases centralization will make sense, perhaps for sets of similar communities, and in other cases the development of common data standards to be implemented across independent systems will be a better solution.

It will be important along the way to increase the capacity for data analysis in public works departments; most public works departments now have very limited or no capacity for running the numbers.  The new information systems will generate significant data that can be used to drive operational improvements, but the data will only be valuable if there are people evaluating and translating the data for the DPW teams.  Data analysts can also help IT managers and department heads to think through what fields and data definitions to include in the databases.

Deep buy-in by participating managers, as well as front line staff, will be critical to success.  A common pitfall for municipalities upgrading their systems is the failure to allocate funding to re-engineer work processes and train staff on data input protocols.  Leaders in the effort should find ways to encourage departments to allocate sufficient resources and attention to implementation, buy-in, and training when they upgrade their data systems.

Meet the Author

Amy Dain

Public policy research consultant, Dain Research, Newton
There are many questions to evaluate when considering how to update local information systems.  Until now, entrepreneurial individuals in local government and supporting agencies have been coming up with answers and leading the way, but efforts have been uncoordinated, expensive, and too often unsuccessful.  It is time for the leaders to come together to learn from each other and to move the digital evolution along more smoothly and systematically.

Amy Dain is an associate with the Government Analytics Program (GAP) at the Collins Center for Public Management at UMass Boston.  Amy also runs a consulting business in Newton that focuses on public policy research. She can be reached at