Jim Higgins is an internet pioneer, early computer adopter, and the father and founder of the Association of Local Government Information Management (ALGIM). By Jennie Gutry, ALGIM marketing and communications manager.
Over 50 years ago he started in IT. He was working for Palmerston North City Council in accounts where they used four accounting machines for rates and the general ledger.
Then the government changed the frequency of rates payments to quarterly so they needed a new way of working.
Jim started looking for a replacement system for their accounts management. At the time Palmerston North City Council was using half of an NCR mainframe in Wellington.
NCR started off making cash registers, and used to be called the National Cash Register Company.
Being an early technology adopter, Jim decided to write a software program that would be able to manage the accounts for the council.
“We walked into a darkened room and had no idea what we were doing. We were going to design a program, but with no knowledge of how to do it. We thought there must be other councils in the same boat. Jim got in touch with other councils and staff from 15 different councils met at the Fitzherbert Hotel in Palmerston North in 1971, 95 percent of whom were accountants.
“IT staff were rare then,” he recalls.
“We established contacts and updated each other with our progress over the next 12 months. The next year we had another meeting in Whanganui and more people came. The following year, another meeting and more new council staff joined us.
“The following year we met over two days. Prime Computer joined us as they wanted to show their new machine off. That was really the start of the annual conference.”
Jim wanted to get the group on a better footing, so contacted Graham Vaughan-Jones, who was then Assistant Auditor General.
He asked Graham for Audit NZ to help fund an annual event for the sector. That group, known as the Local Authority Computer Services Group, existed for a few years with Jim at the helm.
What is now known as LGNZ was then the NZ Municipal Association. A new manager there decided the Municipal Association should own that group.
Jim revisited Graham at Audit NZ for some help to set up an alternative group and in 1975 an enthusiastic team of EDP Managers known as the Information Technology Management Group (ITMG) was formed as part of the New Zealand Local Government Association (NZLGA).
Initially, staff members had to join ALGIM, but Jim changed this so the council itself is a member and everyone can access the association’s resources.
The revolutionary local government reforms of 1989 resulted in widespread amalgamation that resulted in 850 single and multi-purpose local bodies consolidated into 86 multi-purpose local authorities, including regional councils with broad environmental responsibilities.
Previously there had been borough councils, town councils and rural authorities. Jim points out, that as a result, “We had to rehash all our systems at ITMG to accommodate this huge change to the sector.”
In 1995 ITMG became independent of the NZLGA. As a result, the Association of Local Government Information Management was officially established on July 1, 1996. The inaugural meeting of the ALGIM Board was held on 22-23 April 1996.
The ALGIM annual conference has always been a highlight for Jim and, until 2022, he had never missed an event. They have not always been so well organised though. He recalls previous conferences where electrical issues were huge.
“We had to have air conditioning and just couldn’t get enough three phase power to support it.”
At one conference in Napier, they didn’t have a plan for the exhibition layout. Jim got the plan over the phone and staff started in one corner directing exhibitors who did the layout themselves scrapping amongst each other.”
At another conference in Rotorua there was a concept plan of the exhibition area provided by the hotel, but when the ALGIM team turned up, the area did not exist; it had not yet been built.
“We used the big foyer instead. We aged visibly but the delegates were oblivious.”
As President of the New Zealand Computer Society, Jim became famous for his regular morning slot talking to Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand about advances in technology.
He recalls going in with his script to record his session and, “feeling a little worse for wear after a heavy night.”
He was moaning about his hangover to Kim and her response was; “You think you are in a bad way. I have just found out I am pregnant.”
In his many years at the Palmerston North City Council, Jim tackled everything from rating, batch processing, consumer bills for electricity, gas, water, and taking technology to the libraries getting barcodes on the books.
His first computer had 16k of memory. The next one had 32k, which Jim describes as “being drunk with power”. The barcode reader at the library was the size of a piano.
Jim received the New Zealand Computer Society (now IT Professionals NZ) Award for the Greatest Contribution to NZ Public Sector Computing in the 20th Century.
He has, over the years, served in many IT-oriented companies and other organisations and is a Fellow of the NZ Computer Society and of InternetNZ.
Jim retired from the board of ALGIM in 2022. After 50 years of devotion and commitment to the local government IT sector he leaves a huge legacy. And all of us at ALGIM are grateful to him for creating us. LG