Recession makes counties take innovative steps.
By now, members of overstressed and understaffed government IT departments probably are tired of being told that an economic crisis is a terrible thing to waste. It's a clever phrase that glosses over the real pain being felt by the public-sector work force in the form of job furloughs and layoffs. And yet, there's also some truth behind the notion that the Great Recession is forcing healthy, long-term changes.
Our annual Digital Counties Survey, conducted by Government Technology's Digital Communities program, shows that as the economic times get tougher, governments are becoming more practical and open-minded in how they respond. In the technology space, one result is growing attention on IT consolidation and shared services. Neither concept is new, of course, but economic pressure is breaking down resistance to these ideas, which often require individual agencies to give up some of their authority and control.
Our survey -- which collected data from county governments across the nation -- found that 78 percent of respondents are consolidating data centers, servers, applications and staff. And almost 70 percent of respondents said they're involved in new shared services implementations.
With nearly three-quarters of the governments surveyed planning staff reductions, it's easy to see what's driving these trends. Barry Condrey, CIO of Chesterfield County, Va., described the situation succinctly: When remaining government employees are doing the work of two people, they quickly develop an appreciation for new IT approaches.
This month's case study from Fort Collins, Colo., offers a dramatic illustration of this new thinking. The city is offloading the operation of its e-mail system to a local school district. For an annual fee of $20 per user, the school district will host city government e-mail accounts on its Microsoft Exchange system. The move will save the city -- which needed to upgrade its existing e-mail system -- $100,000 over the next five years.
Our cover story provides another timely example at the state level. In Ohio, 15 state agencies banded together to design and build a state-of-the-art shared services center to leverage an ERP system. The move is helping the state get more value from the technology, and it makes more efficient use of the state's shrinking work force.
New technology won't erase the recession's impact on government operations. Indeed, 52 percent of Digital Counties Survey respondents said they may need to execute cuts in public service delivery. But consolidation, shared services and new forms of automation are helping governments stretch scarce budget dollars to maintain vital services. And that's a testament to the resiliency and ingenuity of the government IT community.