Connecting state and local government leaders

Is Good Government Beyond the Reach of Small Government?

Downtown Athens, Georgia

Downtown Athens, Georgia Sean Pavone /


Connecting state and local government leaders

The pressure is on and the implications for local governments that fall behind in the shift to a digital society are immense.

In the latter part of the 19th century, the good government movement sprouted in cities across America.  Its members, dubbed “goo goos” by their detractors, instituted reforms designed to rid local governments of corruption and empower local citizens.

Today, small governments face a similar crisis. But the threat doesn’t come from corrupt officials; instead, it comes from a lack of access to technology that ultimately contributes both to government inefficiencies and the growing disenfranchisement of the largest demographic cohort in American history, the millennials.

Indeed, the Knight Foundation examined millennial attitudes toward government and found that only a third trusted local government, and even fewer trusted state or federal government.

This suggests that the problem is significant and that the best place to start addressing it is where respect for government is greatest.

Unfortunately, that’s also where the challenges are greatest.

The reason is that millennials are largely “digital natives,” heavily engaging with organizations and each other via the Internet. Local governments are unlikely to be able to join in, however, because they don’t always have the budget or staffing to implement digital platforms that can bring issues and information to voters.

In other words, they’re stuck doing government business “the old fashioned way,” using paper, email, and other limited resources that are time consuming, inefficient and disdained—not only by millennials, but by other demographic groups for whom digital communications, often cloud-based, have become a normal part of daily life.

Local rural governments face further challenges in areas where broadband availability can be limited, forcing residents to rely on their cell phones and wireless technology.

Larger municipal governments don’t seem to suffer such limitations and, thus, the good government divide between the technology “haves” and the “have nots” exacerbates inequalities in everything from managerial efficiencies to funding from sources both tax-based and not. In fact, a McKinsey study suggested that fully implemented government digitization around the world could have a $1 trillion impact by cutting costs and improving operations.

There are other implications. For example, local government clerks and staff come under increasing criticism and stress for everything from wasting paper on printed agendas and supporting documents, etc., to wasting time and talent in doing so.  And if staff members attempt to take the paper agenda process and provide the information online, the scan and upload method is often slow, documents aren't searchable, and they’re frequently not meeting the digital standards of those using the Internet to find information.

The pressure is on, and the implications for local governments that fall behind in the shift to a digital society are immense, because 20th century analog technology and thinking simply won’t work in the 21st century.

Fortunately, the marketplace is responding. Lindsay Parish, who works in the City Clerk’s Office of Paducah, Kentucky, says that by utilizing a free online software program like iCompass’ AgendaFree, which is built for local governments, she’s streamlined what was an unwieldy and time-consuming process. In the past, information about public agenda items was assembled in paper packets that could run to 150 pages; the packets had to be hand-delivered to elected officials, costing the city valuable time and resources. Now, by using the software, Lindsay says the administrative time spent in preparing and distributing documents has been significantly reduced, calls seeking information, clarification and assistance have declined, and paper usage has been cut by 85 percent, with the end result that more time now can be devoted to actually helping the public.

David Fierke, who is the city manager of Fort Dodge, Iowa, reports similar success. In pursuit of a better digital platform, he experimented with Facebook but found it to be limited in terms of the sorts of information that his government wanted to distribute.  Now he is able to develop paperless agendas with a user-friendly software application designed specifically for small governments.

Fierke, too, cites the freeing up of staff time as a major benefit. The cloud-based platform he uses literally saves hours of staff time every week because a searchable database allows visitors to find what they need quickly and easily. It’s a robust program that’s highly intuitive, Fierke reports, a valuable asset for an administration looking to run a leaner and more efficient operation.

The future is coming fast to small-town America. Productivity is being revolutionized in a workforce where millennials, now one-quarter of the U.S. population, will soon become the majority demographic.  They are 2.5 times more likely than other generations to be early adopters of technology and they will be entering the workforce of states and municipalities demanding that technology be fully exploited in the name of good government.

There are no longer any excuses.  The time has come to end the digital divide, to improve the efficiency of smaller local governments in a highly affordable manner, and to engage citizens of all ages in the public policy agenda.

Paul Blanchet is the Vice President of Customer Success & Operations at iCompass Technologies, a leading innovator in Web-based paperless agenda and records management software that’s has offices in Seattle and Kamloops, British Columbia.

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