Cities, counties unenthused by 'smart' projects in 2020, survey shows

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Enthusiasm for “smart city” projects was waning in local governments, even before the coronavirus pandemic stamped out IT budgets, according to a survey of city and county CIOs released Tuesday by CompTIA’s Public Technology Institute.

The State of City and County IT National Survey, recorded annually by PTI to measure how well states and cities are prioritizing their technology investments, revealed that just 10% of respondents believe “smart” initiatives are met by agency leaders with enthusiasm, while just 25% of CIOs even have a “smart” strategy in place. The lack of excitement around an industry packed with emerging technologies — like environmental sensors and software powered by blockchain — can be attributed to local governments not taking a “holistic” approach to these projects, said Alan Shark, PTI’s executive director.

“I think [CIOs] are already doing a lot of smart applications, but if they don’t have the leadership from the top it’s very hard for a CIO to say, ‘You know what, I want to make a smart city.’ That requires a mayor or county executive to really push that kind of agenda,” Shark said. “There’s not really a universal definition [of a smart city] that people hang their hat on.”

The survey also lends insight into local governments’ IT budget forecasts before the coronavirus pandemic forced widespread business closures and spikes in unemployment. When asked in late-December or early-January, just over half of local government CIOs said their budgets were at least 75% of what they’d targeted, while 72% of respondents said they expected to see at least slight budget increases. That data, researchers wrote, “suggests greater optimism when it comes to funding and investment among CIOs compared to previous years.”

But now, cities like Philadelphia are forecasting budget cuts in the hundreds of millions of dollars as officials trim everything but essential projects in anticipation of an economic downturn. And exacerbating issues, Shark said, is the poor IT governance present in some local governments, which can impede their advancement toward becoming “smart” regardless of funding levels.

“There are budget concerns, but there’s really a governance concern,” Shark said. “Can we organize ourselves in a way that will really fulfill the promise of what this could look like, which is a very different holistic approach toward information, information analytics and processing.”

Instead of trying to build “smart” communities, local government CIOs said they’re focusing their efforts on what they consider to be more urgent issues, such as increasing cybersecurity-awareness training for government employees, modernizing their IT security postures and ensuring sensitive data is not exposed to the internet.

CIOs also said cybersecurity was the program area around which they were most likely to collaborate with their counterparts at the state and federal levels, though 49% of CIOs said they don’t have a relationship with their state counterpart. But the pandemic, Shark said, could change that.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted IT operations and management to be more essential than ever in supporting critical public health services and delivering smart government systems,” Shark said in a press release accompanying the survey. “Going forward, it is likely that we see the trend towards greater cross-jurisdictional and local-state collaboration accelerate.”

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Alan Shark, CIO, CIO survey, COMPTIA, Public Technology Institute
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