Introducing the Idea of an Open-Source Suite for Municipal Governments

This post was originally published on the Mayoral Performance Analytics Initiative blog of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation on December 5, 2012, but the blog no longer exists. As I'm currently attending the Code for America 2013 Summit and it reminded me of the idea. I never did write the rest of the series and David Eaves wrote a great response to me.

Guest Post: Introducing the idea of an open-source suite for municipal governments

VOICES FROM THE FIELD: Zac Townsend We will occasionally feature guest posts from those working in local governments. This is the first by Zac Townsend, the Senior Technology Policy Advisor and Mayor's Office Fellow in Newark, New Jersey.

New technologies are transforming the way that municipal governments and citizens interact. Open data platforms are releasing increasing amounts of information to the public, allowing anyone to understand and interact with the inner workings of government. Washington, DC, San Fransisco, and New York have all seen civic “hackers” build software applications on top of open city data. In many other cities, citizens have new avenues to report information and to make service requests. The Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston is allowing citizens to make service requests through their Citizens Connect smartphone and text message applications, while Code for America has supported many cities in building applications for citizens to more easily make service requests through web applications.

Yet, much of the promise of modern technology has not improved the capacities of governments to get things done, to provide better services, or to directly support the most vulnerable populations. Too often, technology is used an excuse for why a particularly policy idea or service plan is not possible.

Tony Blair, in a short piece on transforming government in the 21st century, notes that government effectiveness and implementation are at the heart of good governance. He continues that “only systemic change, as opposed to incremental reform, will allow government to keep pace in a rapidly changing world”.

A systemic change is possible in municipal technology. As Linux changed operating systems and Mozilla Firefox changed the web browser wars, an open-source software suite of municipal government software could change municipal technology and, more importantly, municipal services. Open-source software makes publicly and freely available all the source code, end-product design, and implementation details.

Over several blog posts, I will outline and argue for a joint project between cities, philanthropic foundations, and academics to build an open-source suite of software solutions tailored to small and medium size cities. This series will build on an earlier post at The Catalyst, while this post serves as an introduction to the idea and the suite. The suite would ultimately provide well-designed and well-executed versions of key municipal systems through an absolutely free set of software code for cities (and their vendors) to use, build on, and customize.

There are currently 163 small and medium sized cities. They have populations between one hundred thousand and one million people. Each of these cities have similar core backend information technology systems--either designed and built themselves or purchased from vendors. Although cities consider themselves unique with individual technology needs, the creation of one set of open-source systems would reduce the costs for all cities, make maintenance easier, and allow cities to leverage technology to improve city services.

I am calling this idea “CivicOpen”, and one could imagine it as a sort of Mozilla or Apache for civic technology. The goals are to radically reduce information technology costs, to transform public sector services through user- and citizen- centered design and technology, and to allow any city to easily use and implement one system or all the systems.

Reducing information technology costs.

Costs have exploded within state and local governments predicted to spend $60 billion dollars a year on IT by 2014. When cities realize they need new IT systems--sometimes because of a desire for new business processes but equally likely because no one has the requisite outdated skills to maintain the system--they are often so expensive that the project has to be abandoned or critical resources have to be shifted from direct services to citizens into IT backend systems. Big vendors charge individual cities tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars on overly-complex and overly-specified technology projects.

Overall, city governments tend to be bad purchasers of technology, often relying on vendors to tell them what they need, to train their staff, and to even to write requests for proposals. By creating a freely available core set of systems--that is well designed and well executed--every city will have the option to implement core systems more cheaply (even if they need a vendor to customize and implement the software) when the time comes.

Transforming public sector services through user- and citizen- centered design and technology. The last twenty years have seen staggering advances in technology, user interfaces, and user-centric design while municipal governments have been left behind. Cities have been saddled with outdated, bespoke, and inefficient software solutions. These older system are are used as an excuse to avoid positive change-- “we can’t do that because our systems won’t allow it”--so services cannot be improved because of an old system that implements an outdated process from many years ago, in an ugly and unconsidered way.

CivicOpen would be an opportunity to use modern technologies to improve service delivery through user- and citizen-centered design, service design, and ethnographic research on service needs and delivery.

Allowing any city to easily use and implement one system or all the CivicOpen systems. Cities tend to have technology systems that sit on two sides of a spectrum: either overly customized on one end or an off-the-shelf closed-source solution that is not customized at all. Either way, interoperability and information sharing can be very expensive or impossible for municipal governments, and cities can get locked in a custom built or a closed-source ecosystem where only the products of [insert vendor name] play well together.

With freely available source code, CivicOpen will allow cities to tailor the suite to their needs, either by using or not using all the core systems, adding their own software as needed, or customizing the available software as far as needed. The suite would also be built with well-exposed and well-documented application programming interfaces (APIs) that will allow developers to load and utilize components as needed.

Jump-starting civic innovation.

By making this large, targeted investment in civic technology, CivicOpen will create and foster a large systemic change with municipal governments. The suite would change the cost-structure of technology in government, would bring new service designs to cities, and would allow cities to come along at their own pace.

As a preview of the series, I propose that the CivicOpen suite be designed from the start with a citizen-centric view, have data analysis and visualization available, facilitate open data and transparency at its core, be place-based and geocoded, and have best practices built into it. With open source software, cities would be able to have a core set of technology available to them for free, while still having the option to implement customized versions at low-cost. By being open-source, OpenCivic would allow any city to share code openly with other cities, and allow for upgrades to be propagated, for free, to cities based on others' work. The project could be jointly conducted by a coalition of alpha cities, and a series of academic, for-profit, and community partners. This public-private partnership will build a working software suite that would help retire billions of dollars from the cost structure of local governments with the following components:

  • Budgeting and Financial Planning
  • Financial Management and Contracting
  • Personnel and Payroll System
  • Citizen Relationship Management--Service Requests and Fulfillment
  • Licensing and Consumer Protection
  • Work / Asset / Inventory Management
  • Land Use, City Planning, and Mapping
  • Grants Management

Over the coming weeks, I will write posts that more fully elaborate the problems I see in government IT, the advantages of open-source for government, the design principles for the suite, the component systems of the suite, and a possible organizational structure of the joint initiative.

Zac Townsend is the Senior Technology Policy Advisor and Mayor's Office Fellow in Newark, New Jersey.