PORTLAND, Maine — As more and more local government services move online, towns need a new model for managing growing reams of data while serving their residents.

Maine Chief Technology Officer Greg McNeal urged an audience of municipal officials from around the state to consider private business partners for data management Thursday, noting that some of the state government’s most sensitive information is kept on servers in Phoenix and Albuquerque, N.M..

“We can’t afford the cost of doing the things we’re trying to do alone,” McNeal told the group.

McNeal was the keynote speaker Thursday at the 2012 Municipal Technology Conference, held by the Maine Municipal Association and Maine GIS User Group at Holiday Inn By the Bay in Portland despite the near-blizzard conditions outside.

McNeal told attendees they can’t rely on federal stimulus investments to pay for technology improvements and residents will expect to be able to do more and more of their government business online. He said the only way to keep up with the high costs of expanding online services and maintaining the background infrastructure is to collaborate with other governments and bring private businesses into the fold.

“We have 12,000 users in the executive branch,” he said. “If we can go to Microsoft and say, ‘We’ve got 20,000 users statewide,’ that’s a different bargaining position. … Revenues are down, but what’s really going up are technology maintenance costs. Revenues are down, and we have to make those revenues go farther.”

McNeal noted that municipal, county and state government bodies manage massive amounts of data and constituents can increasingly use home computers to conduct business such as registering a dog, getting a hunting license or paying taxes.

Those advances in convenience, he said, come with both costs and savings. He said the governments can save on paper, mailings and personnel, among other costs, by providing online forms for residents. But implementing the systems and maintaining them can be prohibitively expensive without sharing best practices with other government groups or outsourcing the work to companies who specialize in it.

“There’s nothing cheap [about technology],” McNeal told Thursday morning’s audience. “Let’s get that out of the way. Cheap is $100,000.”

He said the state government was able to benefit from partnerships with private companies, which host the executive branch’s financial data system AdvantageME on computers in Phoenix and the revamped Maine Integrated Health Management Solution in Albuquerque.

“Our folks get to work, hit the ‘enter’ key and the data’s there,” McNeal said. “They don’t care where it comes from. The system is paying the providers and doing what it needs to do.”

He suggested that municipalities cannot cling to territorial instincts when it comes to keeping up with technology.

“It’s growing so fast, it’s exponential, and there’s no end in sight,” McNeal told the attendees Thursday. “The question we have to ask ourselves is ‘How do we manage that?’”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.