In celebrating innovation in local government, the 2011 ALGIM conference shows that while innovating is a real struggle, it is hard work, the spirit of collaboration, and the technology of the web that are its ingredients.

Every year, IT managers and their technical staff representing New Zealand's 80 councils meet. ALGIM, who has run the event for 31 years, provides three full days of presentations, food, and plenty of time for talk. But most importantly, the event encourages and celebrates innovation through showcases and awards. Given the IT department of a council is typically seen as the slow moving cog in an organisation that is already slow to move with the times, some healthy encouragement to take calculated risks and innovate is crucial.

Councils exist to democratically serve their communities and make them wonderful places to visit, live, and work. This costs money, which is in direct tension with rates increases and, is made harder by an economic and political climate pushing cost cutting. (Nelson City Council Chief Executive Keith Marshall expresses this tension clearly in his video presentation about leadership and the challenges coming soon to local government.) It's very refreshing therefore to see at ALGIM sessions how IT, and in particular the web, can actually be the example and inspiration for councils to transform. For example:

  • Windor city, Canada, is the automobile sister city of Detroit, USA. Zero revenue growth for Windsor city council over ten years is a much harsher economic reality than any New Zealand counterpart faces, and yet, their Executive Director of IT Harry Turnbell explained very clearly how they managed to keep their IT systems modern, including moving their website from brochure towards being a virtual branch open 24 hours.
  • InternetNZ Chief Executive Vikram Kumar explained (see video) how councils, the public, and social media can co-exist before, during, and after natural disasters affect cities. This is more than just a case of citizens having a desire to use Twitter and Facebook: social media tools cost effectively nothing, are substantially robust, create considerable goodwill, and deliver a valuable social service. These are all benefits to councils (which is also to say, their communities) so long as councils overcome challenges to do with loss of control over communication and having the resources and will to participate in realtime public conversations. 
  • Dale Hartle, Porirua City Council website manager, won an ALGIM award for putting just as much thought into creating a useful new tool, called updates.co.nz as she did on ensuring other councils could pick it up and use it for their own regions. (Please do!)

Making the web useful to citizens is overall an expensive endeavor for councils, but efforts towards collaboration that Porirua City Council have started are right to be applauded - as is using inexpensive web tools and taking advantage of open source: these approaches are currently considered innovative but should be considered normal. This is the only way councils will be able to deliver a better service under increasing financial pressure.

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