John Miri is editor-in-chief at the Center for Digital Government, based in Folsom, Calif.  The organization recently published its paper The Vital Asset for Today’s Government, about the use of enterprise content management (ECM) systems in government. We spoke with Miri about the current state of digital government and what lies ahead. 

What is happening in digital government that led you to write this report?

State, local, and federal government agencies have always been active collectors of data, but they aren’t using it to great effect. The data collected by governments comes in many different forms, including structured data that can be stored in a relational database in columns and rows. Much of the rest of the data collected is what we call “unstructured.” Unstructured data lacks a rigid set of columns, rows, and enumerated values, but it still contains important information and can be part of the government record. Unstructured data includes things like written reports, emailed documents, and social media posts.

The example of the city of Corpus Christi, Texas, shows just how fast the data needs of government agencies are growing. Corpus Christi is generating a terabyte of new data every six weeks – that’s a very fast growth rate. All of this new data should be helping government be more efficient, but many of us are not yet able to use it in an effective way.

Governments simply can’t make efficient use of this volume of information without the right software and automation. This includes using the right software to handle ECM, workflow, audit, compliance, and more. This way, the information government is collecting can become an asset and be put to use to make the job of government faster and easier.

What changes have you seen in digital government?

The need for greater collaboration is one of the biggest recent changes. The increasing financial pressure on budgets, especially at a state and local level, is the biggest factor underlying this trend. In general, state and local government agencies have never been flush with money. But since 2008 and the economic crunch that came with it, the pressure on budgets has become extreme. I’ve talked to some counties that cut their IT budgets by 40 percent one year and by an additional 30 percent the year after that. That’s an extreme case, but there’s this enormous pressure to get the job of government done at a lower cost. The size of the job we need to do isn’t getting any smaller. We may not have as much money for building inspections, but the buildings still need to be inspected.

This budget pressure is driving more folks to want to work together in a collaborative fashion. None of us can do it all on our own. Cities and counties are working together on content management as a shared service. We’re also seeing a lot of people moving toward business user self-service. They are streamlining and automating workflows, which helps government get from point A to point B in an economically efficient way.

Where do you see digital government going from here?

To paraphrase one of my favorite authors, the rumors of the death of digital government innovation have been greatly exaggerated. Some people thought that financial pressure on budgets meant that governments were just going to come to screeching halt and that core essential services simply weren’t going to get delivered. That’s not what we’re seeing. Human beings are smart, and people are a lot more creative than that. Yes, technology is powerful. We certainly need new tools. But it is exciting to see the creativity of people who look at their business processes say, ‘Let’s find new tools, automate manual work processes, simplify the steps, and take two seconds to search our archive instead of searching three weeks in warehouses.’ These budget trends can look ominous, but individual people are smart. They’re taking new technologies and coming up with better ways to do the business that they are charged with. 

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