Photo of Marc Ott and an image of two computer-generated hands shaking

Whether in the private or public sector, artificial intelligence (AI) has been touted as a technology with the power to transform virtually every operational activity. And it seems to be happening at warp speed.

There are many examples of AI altering everything from council meeting minutes (available 10 minutes after the meeting) to allowing planning engineers to review and comment on development plans in a day versus weeks. The question for local government leaders is how best to harness the power of AI to improve the quality of life in their communities, increase the productivity and performance of local government staff, and establish guardrails to mitigate risks that come with the adoption of any new technology.

A key to moving forward quickly and effectively is the partnership between the CAO and the chief information/technology officer (CIO). Because the ultimate goal is to leverage AI to drive innovation and deliver value to residents, those local government mangers who have taken the time to build a strong relationship with their CIOs will see success. While the CAO and the leadership team can set an ambitious vision for how the organization might potentially deploy AI, there is typically a significant discrepancy between these aspirations and the readiness of the organization to move forward.

ICMA is fortunate to have a CIO who joined the organization from local government, Hemant Desai. He has developed an initial roadmap for the use of AI and generative AI at ICMA and also has engaged with ICMA members to gather feedback on how the association can best support the membership. Here are some steps that he recommends and in fact has initiated at ICMA:

Conduct a Staff Survey

It’s a good bet that a percentage of your staff may be aware and even already use AI tools. Having a baseline from which to evaluate staff readiness is a great starting point rather than “diving into the deep end.”

Establish an Initial Set of Guidelines

Prior to training and usage, set guidelines that are flexible yet protect both the organization and individuals as AI technology is deployed. In this phase it’s also important to establish metrics you will use to evaluate your efforts.

Upskill Data Specialists and/or Hire AI Engineers

Few organizations have the budget to go out and hire a whole new IT department. At ICMA we are repurposing one of our open IT positions to gain an individual with AI experience. Many IT professionals are eager to gain AI skills so it’s important to add budgeting for this type of training into the AI roadmap.

Provide Initial Training for Staff

It’s important to have a base level of common understanding and skills across most staff positions.

Encourage Staff to Experiment

Once you have set guidelines and provided basic training, determine which tools you will begin to experiment with. ChatGPT, Google Bard, and Microsoft Copilot are all readily available. Hemant also suggests caution in purchasing applications or out-of-the-box solutions that may be called AI, but have actually been in the marketplace for years and may be outdated.

Gather Feedback and Validate Use Cases

An outcome of the experimentation process will be new ways of working—whether it is taking an existing task and automating it or uncovering a whole new solution to a vexing problem. Sharing these outcomes and the steps along the way present new opportunities for staff communication. Key aspects in this area are assessing business areas (finance, HR, purchasing, contracts, legal, etc.) and using outcomes of the assessment in creating a roadmap for AI architecture.

Review and Update Your Roadmap

When you begin your AI journey, you may have one set of expectations for training, budgeting, and staffing. As you gain more experience and uncover more opportunities you will need to continuously update your AI roadmap, incorporating it into your broader operational planning. Your initial metrics will most likely need to be updated as well.

Learn from Your Peers

One benefit of belonging to ICMA and other professional organizations is the ability to join others in formal workshops and training or simply to network informally. AI will feature prominently in ICMA’s upcoming regional Local Government Reimagined conferences this spring. Participants can expect a combination of discussion, hands-on experiences, and resources, including how to develop an AI strategy along with ethical considerations. Multiple sessions on AI will also be included in the ICMA Annual Conference in Pittsburgh in September.

Moving forward in the exciting yet not fully explored and vetted world of AI will draw on all of the leadership attributes demanded by the job of city, county, and town manager. This includes the ability to see beyond today and to inspire the rest of the team to embrace the journey toward an undefined future. That ambiguity will create excitement for some and anxiety for others. As CAO, it’s important to reinforce with team members that they will be part of defining that future; one that will create new and different opportunities for staff and more efficient and innovative experiences for residents.

Marc Ott holiday message image


MARC A. OTT is CEO/Executive Director of ICMA, Washington, D.C.

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