I wasn’t sure what to expect when we asked the public works professionals on this month’s cover for their favorite technology. But I’ll tell you this: Regardless of age, sex, size of community served, or sector, their responses completely negate the assumption that government is not innovative.

  • RFID to charge solid waste customers individually by volume generated (otherwise known as “pay-as-you-throw”)
  • Another use of radio technology: water meter reading, eliminating the need for a human being to trudge from building to building
  • Using GIS to reduce accident rates on the most dangerous sections of a road
  • Using an inevitable byproduct of sewage treatment—methane gas—to power city vehicles as well as treatment plant operations

None of these American Public Works Association Top 10 Leaders say getting there was easy. “The new gizmo or application wobbles between being our favorite as we welcome increased efficiencies, and being our newest nemesis as we struggle through the rollout period,” says one.

Unlike people working in the private sector, these men and women had to convince three constituencies—purse-holders (their governing body), employees, and customers (the public)—to take a chance on a particular technology. But they didn’t let the bells and whistles distract them from their fundamental mission: providing the highest-value service possible.

“Never before have I had such easy access to relevant information that laypeople can understand,” says one. “The ability to not just tell, but also to show, information and trends graphically has greatly advanced our ability to get customers onboard with our programs, and to ensure we’re focusing our limited resources on the areas that have the greatest likelihood of success.”

Isn’t this what every business strives for?

Identifying opportunities for efficiency-enhancement is just half the battle. The other half, which is far more difficult, is managing the process and procedural changes new technology inevitably brings. The communication skills and political acumen required can’t be taught in a classroom. So if you’re at the APWA Congress in Toronto this month, ask them how they did it.

The answer will be worth its weight in gold.