NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – Like most organizations, New Jersey’s local governments face challenges managing technology, which plays a critical role in the way they deliver services to constituents. But benefits associated with adapting the latest technology come with risks, some more apparent than others.
A new Rutgers report details the problems facing municipal officials as they try to maximize the benefits of technology for their communities and constituents while limiting risk in such critical areas as cybersecurity, law, operations, finance, even reputation.
The report finds that top municipal officials must create and maintain an environment of “technological proficiency.” That includes establishing a process for making technology decisions, developing an annually reviewed technology plan that is tied to the budget, instituting a “cyber hygiene” training program for all employees in proper computer security practices, and making sure that agency technology is competently managed.
“Managing technology risk requires a top-to-bottom commitment from elected and appointed officials throughout local government, their staffs and even outside vendors,” said Marc Pfeiffer, the study’s author and assistant director and senior policy fellow at Rutgers’ Bloustein Local Government Research Center.
“In fact, many such problems first come to light after technology is adopted or when its routine use makes government so dependent upon it that new, unforeseen risks emerge,” he added.
While cybersecurity is probably the most frequently discussed technological risk, it is far from the only source of technology failure concerning local officials.
“Practically everyone has heard about data breaches and the theft of personal information, but there is an inadequate understanding of the other risks associated with technology,” Pfeiffer said. “Inattention to risks can result in lawsuits arising from a theft of information assets or its citizens’ personal information that is both time-consuming and expensive.”
When technology glitches disrupt essential services, either routinely or in an emergency, it presents another set of challenging risks. “Think about the failure of complicated computer programs that control water and sewer treatment systems or control 9-1-1 emergency call-taking and dispatching,” he said.
Moreover, most agencies use a combination of their own full- or part-time employees and contractors to manage their technology, Pfeiffer added, which means risk factors can be overlooked. “Many organizations have a decentralized approach to technology management,” he said. “This leads to disorganization, the duplication of services and an increased risk of technology failure.”
Finally, municipal officials must determine how much of their scarce resources they can dedicate to satisfy the information and service needs of a growing number of tech-savvy constituents.
“The public insists that government meet their technological expectations without increasing their taxes,” Pfeiffer concluded. “This paradox is difficult to resolve but requires the attention of political leaders, public administrators and technology leaders to find solutions for their organizations.”
The study, “Managing Technology Risks Through Technological Proficiency,” was conducted for the Municipal Excess Liability Joint Insurance Fund, a self-insurance fund of almost 600 New Jersey municipalities, local authorities, fire districts and other agencies. All study material can be found the school's website and the MEL Safety Institute.