Digital inclusion through the lens of local government

Recently, I was asked, "why are city/county managers interested in digital inclusion?"

While many managers are "interested" in digital inclusion, the frank answer is that few are actually focused on it.  Like others, managers tend to focus on the more immediate issues that are coming at them from all directions:  filling potholes, 4-way stop sign requests, mowing the grass in the park, etc. Also consuming managers over the past few years has been balancing budgets in the face of declining resources and rising costs.  

The reason issues like digital inclusion don’t get much attention is because they – like other long-term strategic issues – are out of sight and out of mind. Strategic issues are what Steven Covey refers to as important/non-urgent matters, which are easy to never get to when we let ourselves be consumed with urgent and seemingly important matters.

Ironically, digital technologies have made prioritization even harder with the uninterrupted barrage of information, especially e-mail, an increasingly non-productive, non-strategic time consumer.

With regard to digital inclusion, it is essential that those of us involved with the issue provide leadership and visibility to translate the concept into the practical realities for the communities within which we work.

We are trying to do this at ICMA, partnering with libraries in the effort. To the extent that the U.S. has made progress on digital inclusion is due largely to public libraries.  However, if large scale, strategic progress is to be made, libraries cannot do it alone. Libraries have to build partners across other government agencies, non-profits, and businesses. This includes proactively bringing the practical needs and impacts to the attention of appointed and elected officials. We need to help make digital inclusion part of the current conversation on priorities if communities and the people within them are to be competitive in a global society propelled by technology.

Ron Carlee

Chief Operating Officer, International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and former manager of Arlington, Virginia

Comments

Thanks Ron for your post - I appreciate the frank assessment.

As someone who worked on technology initiatives for one of the country's leading city managers, I completely agree that digital inclusion gets interest but not focus from most local governments. I don't think it's for a lack of good intentions; competing priorities simply trump digital inclusion for attention.

Perhaps there are some new ways to appeal to reputational interests of city managers, (strong) mayors, and city councilmembers? I don't mean to sound cynical at all; I'm just acknowledging practical realities - unless someone can successfully get "credit" for providing leadership support for digital inclusion, the issue is likely to fall by the wayside. I think this is particularly true when we're talking about the "early adopter" phase.

ICMA awards can be helpful - perhaps it's possible for ICMA to work in partnership with other instituions to could significantly add to the reputational credit carrot?

Glenn's comments are exactly on target.  Sometimes city/county leaders just don't know what they don't know.  This is why it is so important for people working in digital inclusion (and other areas of importance) to be proactive in getting emerging issues exposed.  And, yes, it is appropriate to appeal to "reputational interests."  I use the term generational -- what are we doing today that will serve our residents of tomorrow; that will make our community a stronger, better place?  We hope that our digital inclusion work at ICMA will help librarians and others get air-time on the digital inclusion issue by further legitimizing it as worthy of attention.  In the process of our library work we are literally partnering with every library entity:  TechSoup, WebJunction, ALA, PLA, ULC, as well as U of Washington, U of Maryland, the Gates Foundation, and IMLS.  We have also partnered with the state librarians of Oklahoma, California, Texas, and Maine. All of these entities have done great work in the area of digital inclusion, which togther we are trying to integrate through the IMLS Framework for Digital Inclusion and through the EDGE benchmark program, funded by the Gates Foundation and coordinated through ULC.  Info on both efforts are on the web. Also visit icma.org and register for our Knowledge Network (free; membership not required) and participate in the Library topic:  http://icma.org/en/icma/knowledge_network/topics/kn/Topic/161/Libraries