Crazy Idea #6: eGovernment

Note: This is the sixth installment of Eight Crazy Ideas for ’08, a multi-part posting that is looking at ideas, big and small, that could improve our community in Belmont.

While we’re all pondering the fate of the beloved Underwood pool, its worth noting that problems like pool maintenance are really a drop in the bucket of financial woes facing small towns, Belmont included. As an article in today’s Boston Globe points out, towns and cities across the Commonwealth are facing budget deficits and Prop 2 1/2 overrides to fund police, fire, schools and the like. The culprit: a $621million annual decrease in local aid since 2002, coupled with steep increases in the cost of benefits for employees and fixed costs like fuel and other materials. Belmont is no different. And, while there’s not much we can do about the price of oil, the town can do a lot to increase the efficiency of town government and the way it delivers services to its residents.

In fact, as The Warrant Committee noted in its 2006 report, the town literally cannot afford to continue operating as it has in the past. The fix, obviously, is to continue to maintain the services that town residents rely on and want, while reducing the overhead necessary to deliver those services. How can you do that? One way is by sharing services such as fire response or policing (or schools, for that matter) with neighboring towns, outsourcing town services to private contractors, or pooling purchasing power with other municipalities — all suggestions that the Warrant Committee has made for the town and that are worth evaluating.

The other way is to do what private sector companies have been doing for more than a decade: leveraging the power of technology and the Internet. Of course, “eGovernment” is a term with a lot of baggage — it almost screams “dot com collapse.” But the truth is that smart, budget-minded cities and towns across the country are using online services to improve the efficiency of their operations and lower costs. The Center for Digital Governance’s recent Digital Cities Survey lists small cities like Jupiter, Florida and Lynchburg, Virginia, as leaders in the use of technology and the Internet to serve residents. What kinds of services? Online applications for building permits and licenses, online bill payment and comprehensive online collections of data and documents that citizens need — GIS data and maps, online lien searches and on and on. By pushing that data out to residents over the Web, rather than asking them to come into Town Hall to be waited on, towns improve their efficiency, better serve their residents and reduce costs simultaneously.

Sure, most towns — Belmont included — offer some services online, but it’s hard to look at Belmont’s Web site and the site for a town like Jupiter, Florida, and not see that there’s a lot of room for improvement.

Not that this is a problem that’s unique to Belmont. Look at the list of Digital Cities and towns, and you don’t see New England represented well at all (I count Enfield and Manchester, CT as the only two NE towns among more than 30). So, while Belmont spends plenty of money on information technology (or IT) to support the work of its employees, it doesn’t seem to have grasped the larger fact that its very future depends on its ability to push automated, Web-and mobile-enabled services out to residents rather than keeping Town Hall packed with paper and people, and keeping its books balanced by winnowing services that residents want and need. Selectman Firenze told B2 blog that he thinks the town is situated perfectly right now – that its priorities and spending are almost perfectly in line. I disagree. At the end of the day, of course, $600m a year in lost local aid is a lot of money, and there might not be enough you can gain in eGovernment efficiencies to make up the difference. But we have to start somewhere, so here’s a vote for bigger, better eGovernment in 2008!