The great experiment: keeping local government connected
The role of local government is changing. People expect more than rubbish collection and pot holes being fixed, in an increasingly digital world they want government to be accessible and responsive - from home speed broadband in public libraries, WiFi in public spaces to connected public services. There is both scope and demand for greater digital efficiency.
Free public Wi-Fi was a hot topic last Summer. Those opposing Melbourne City Council’s plan to provide it in the CBD said it would be wasting public money to serve the privileged yuppie community; while its supporters pointed out that a century earlier the same argument had been used against public electricity, quoting: “It is but a luxury enjoyed by a small proportion of the members of any municipality, and yet if the plant be owned and operated by the city, the burden of such ownership and operation must be born by all the people through taxation”. As a consequence, private electricity dominated the USA, leaving great swathes of the country without power until Roosevelt’s electrification program in the 1930s.
There is enormous pressure on government not to make mistakes: millions spent on a failed project make big headlines. So planning leans towards industrial policy: direct spending on specific projects sure to deliver predictable benefits. But, as the economy and society grow more complex, it becomes harder to make such predictions, and there is an increasing call for innovation policies that take a more experimental approach.
Providing infrastructure, such as an electricity or WiFi grid, is like fertilising a field: it could simply help the weeds to flourish. Innovation policy shifts the balance from manipulation to experimentation: take some risks and carefully monitor the results before moving ahead. Experimental science also relies heavily on sharing results and listening to others: in 2009 the World Bank called on governments to recognise broadband’s potential to boost growth and competitiveness and to support it “through regulatory and policy reforms as well as strategic investments and public-private partnerships.” As a result many governments worldwide now see connection as an essential utility – alongside water, sewage and electricity – as evidence mounts that it fosters GDP growth, creates jobs, improves education, health care and other social services as well as creating a climate of innovation.
In the words of Mr Battista Covolo, IT Manager at Burdekin Shire Council: “Local government is no longer just about roads and rubbish; it has become a complex and versatile business offering many services to the community and facing constant changes imposed by both state and federal governments, not to mention the community’s expectations”.
For the critic, free Wi-Fi just means better service for yuppies, but in our complex environment much less obvious benefits arise. Most of the pressure on mobile phone services comes from surging data downloads: Wi-Fi takes that pressure off the cellular backbone and helps improve telephone services for everyone. Since 2005 municipal Wi-Fi experiments across the globe have included free, partly free and paid public services and combinations of public and private funding, not just to boost connectivity but also to improve other services. Many traditional local government services are increasingly digitised: two way radio is using IP backhaul to provide more complex data such as GPS positioning, text messaging, blue tooth connectivity and interoperability between emergency services to increase efficiency. Broadband to public libraries provides universal access to E-government, employment, education, health and other Internet-enabled services and resources. Internally, local government can reap the same business benefits that drive the digital enterprise.
The shift from industrial to innovative planning frightens its critics because it suggests a free for all, a step into the unknown, but that misses the point. Experimentation demands strict control of initial conditions to provide useful results, not just letting digital solutions spring up here and there in the hope that something good will emerge from the chaos. So smart councils, like Coffs Harbour City Council, take the holistic view: looking for a single service provider with the scale and resources to deliver properly integrated and consistent services right across the district.
Since 2008, Coff’s digital network has provided significant economies by leveraging common infrastructure to integrate both radio and telephone communications and deliver next generation networking to the community. Vertel’s ability to provide high capacity, uncontended backhaul to Coff’s dark fibre network has made a big difference to day-to-day operations, while providing the basis for other exciting projects. Why has the Coates Hire Rally Australia event returned to Coffs Harbour City year after year? It has a lot to do with the assurance of their seamless communications infrastructure.
So: be prepared to experiment. Plan wisely. And carefully monitor the results.