People have been following with a moderate sense of worry the financial crisis unfolding in Greece and other European countries, Despite how dramatic the situation has become in Greece, many have remained in denial about the possibility of a serious contagion to other vulnerable countries.
However things have suddenly changed, as Valencia, Murcia, Catalonia and other Spanish regions have declared that they may soon become insolvent unless helped by the Spanish central government (which is not in an enviable financial situation either).
For several years Spanish government organizations have embarked in ambitious technology projects, and the country as a whole climbed the EU ranking for e-government, even issuing a law (law 11/2007 on e-government) that rushed all government administration toward online service delivery. Also the region of Extremadura, which pursued a world-leading moves to open source adoption, appears to be in deep trouble.
With far-from-reassuring news from the markets, government organizations in vulnerable countries need to start seriously thinking about how to keep their lights on.
My session at Symposium (in Orlando, Barcelona and Gold Coast) will be Smart Government Scenario: Keeping the Lights On and Making Them Brighter. I guess the title is spot on to touch upon the sense of urgency that is spreading across government agencies worldwide. Although it is hard to say how the situation will look like in Europe by November, holding the symposium in the capital of Catalonia gives the session a particular flavor.
It is quite clear that government organizations can no longer look for marginal improvements and cost reductions, but they have to pursue more radical avenues to make sure they can remain viable concerns. The problem that makes this particular crisis far worse than the recent GFC is that in 2008-2009 governments were in a position to bail out financial institutions and inject money into the economy to sustain jobs and demand. This time they are the problem rather than the solution and may be unable to take measures to support businesses and the society as a whole. On the other hand demand for services cannot but grow, be it under the form of unemployment benefits, business subsidies or just increased focus on public safety to deal with protests and riots.
This time there is no easy fix. Government organizations at all levels, but certainly more at local level, have to take tough decisions about what they can stop doing to be able to keep the lights on for high priority services. Making that determination is far from easy and the immature portfolio management culture as well as the lack of familiarity with killing projects and discontinuing services and operations do not help at all.
It may be a great opportunity to test some of the open government and government 2.0 tools to help communicate, engage people in finding solutions to problems that government cannot solve any longer, building networks for mutual support, crowdsourcing services and processes that have become unsustainable. Unfortunately so far open government has been mostly about increasing transparency and providing new services through the use of open data. In a context where even maintaining an open data site may become an unaffordable expenditure, the balance between what governments can do for their people, and what people can do for their governments tilts toward the latter. So maybe – but it is a qualified maybe – we will see less application contests won by the n-th “Where’s My Bus” application, and more “Let’s Share A Car As There Is No Bus Service Any Longer” apps.
The same applies to the other technology fashion in government, the mythical and yet elusive “smart city”. In theory the better use of information coming from zillions of sensors could make a city far more efficient and save governments a lot of money. Unfortunately, as it always happens, the break even point between investments required and actual savings is rather distant in time, and for some it may be past default. So maybe – but it is a qualified maybe – we will see less smart city projects where cities deploy a lot of infrastructure to prepare for big data collection and processing in a seamless and predictive way, and more humble reuse of existing infrastructure (like video cameras) leveraged for different applications, and more local data analysis to drive cost containment decisions.
Technology can definitely play a key role to dampen some of the effects of the unfolding crisis. But it requires a radically different way of thinking by government technology executives and vendors alike. Will that happen?