At the NJ-Government Management Information Sciences conference in Somerset in March, attendees were able to visit the booths of some 45 exhibitors, many of which were local tech companies selling to New Jersey municipal governments.
They also had the chance to participate in an interactive keynote presentation by Thornton May, a futurist, educator and author who specializes in helping information technologists create value with IT.
NJTechWeekly.com walked the floor of the event, speaking to some of the solution partners who were participating.
We found: Johnston Communications Voice and Data (North Arlington), Ocean Computer Group (Mattawan), Eyemetric Identity Systems (New Egypt), Genesis Educational Services (Jamesburg), SHI (Somerset), Prior & Nami Business Systems (Hamilton), Duplitron (Roselle), Property Pilot (Hoboken), Storage Engine (Tinton Falls), Spatial Data Logic (Somerset), Tele-Measurements (Clifton), Sunrise Systems (Metuchen), Promedia Technology Services (Little Falls), Eastern DataComm (Hackensack), New Jersey Business Systems (Robbinsville) and Xtel Communications (Marlton).
Our stop by the Property Pilot booth yielded some news from that company. Property Pilot said that it had signed Passaic County to a subscription agreement, and that all of the municipalities within Passaic County were now eligible for a geographic information system (GIS) for their municipal websites free of charge through the county license.
There were many educational sessions to choose from at the conference. For example, attendees learned about social media challenges such as archiving, comment policy and managing access. And they also got to attend sessions like “Surviving an IT Audit and Penetration-Intrusion Testing” and “The Challenges of On-Demand and Live Broadcasting of Public Meetings.”
During the keynote, May rallied the group, comparing the event to a “postindustrial campfire, a celebration of ” public-sector IT. A dynamic speaker, May noted that he was mindful of the challenges faced by public-sector IT professionals, saying, “I’m sensitive to the difficulty in moving the ball forward.” He added that he was writing a book with the CIO of the City of Detroit. “It’s very, very important what you do.”
May called himself a “constraint anthropologist” who focuses on modern tribes, as well as a futurist and a promiscuous networker. He engaged the group in an interactive exercise, with the attendees seated at tables working together.
Every historical period had a feel of its own, he told them, and then he qualified his statement by quoting Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” May asked the group to think about which historical era resembled the situation in which GMIS professionals find themselves today. One attendee answered that it felt like the Civil War to her and her colleagues because their municipality was trying to save money, so it had been forced to reduce the staff, and those remaining are asked to do even more work. “We just feel like we are fighting a battle all the time,” she said, with the municipality misunderstanding the bigger picture.
Marc Pfeiffer, NJ-GMIS conference cochair and president of the NJGMIS TEC Foundation, said that he related the era to when electricity was first being commercialized. “There are things happening outside of us. The commercial sector is pulling us along against the will of our governing bodies. And we are trying to figure out how to manage all this new stuff. … There are all sorts of new challenges and risks in what we are facing.”
May suggested that an appropriate comparison would be the Renaissance, the time following the Dark Ages. “We are coming out of a dark time in IT,” he said. “But we are rediscovering former glories. We are convincing people that technology can actually do good.” He also said that there is now a feeling that “what we do matters.” The reality of the modern age, he added, is that “positive change is possible.”
The role of leadership is to figure out the pathway toward positive change. “Each and every one of you is a Michelangelo,” May told the attendees. “If you remember, they gave Michelangelo crummy materials. His marble was broken; they gave him a bad piece of rock. That’s what he carved David out of. What would your David look like?”
He told the group to come up with words that best described their digital journeys. Among the responses were “bumpy,” “tempestuous,” “potholed” and “tortured.” One attendee said that the biggest problem he faced was that the average worker doesn’t want to embrace digital technology. Others described their journeys as “uncertain” or “uncharted.”
On the other hand, someone from Cape May County said that her digital journey had been very “comprehensive.” “We are in a situation in which we are refreshing just about everything,” she explained. Someone else described his journey as “dynamic.”
May noted that, whether they liked it or not, public-sector IT people were captives of the digital journey, and must somehow make it into something that their government colleagues would want to share. “We have to put in the mind of the stakeholders that this is a journey that matters, that this is a journey they want to go on.”
Words matter, said May. “Most of the words we heard were ‘victim words.’ No one gets your messages when you use those words.” Government workers must craft their messages carefully and forcefully, and appeal to officials’ better natures, he advised.
May finished his keynote with an inspirational story aimed at moving the audience past the obstacles they saw in their jobs. The story was about how C.C. Myers used ingenuity to rebuild in less than six months a Los Angeles bridge that had been destroyed by the Northridge earthquake in 1994. The outage was going to cost the city $1 million per day while the bridge was being repaired. Myers negotiated with the city, offering to pay a penalty of $100,000 a day if he didn’t make his deadline, on the condition that he’d receive a bonus of the same amount for every day he was early. He also told his construction workers that he was going to share a piece of any bonus he got with them.
“What he did was quantify the value of time,” May said. The bridge was completed 66 days before the contract end date. It has since been assessed as the safest bridge in California, May told the group, urging them to use ingenuity to accomplish something great in their municipalities.