Counties Convene, Share Survival Strategies

"Wayne County, Mich. lost 50 percent of their IT people in the last three years. That's slash and burn."

by / July 22, 2011
NACo CIO Bert Jarreau NACo

The evolution of the CIO -- from basic technician to full partner in the management and delivery of government services -- carries with it broad exposure to major headaches when mandated delivery of services collides with financial meltdown.

At the Annual Conference of the National Association of Counties (NACo) in Portland, Ore., last week, CIOs and county officials met to discuss survival strategies that ranged from shared services to pension reform and staffing cuts.

Bert Jarreau, NACo CIO, said that every county CIO at a recent meeting had suffered budget and staffing cuts. "Wayne County, Mich., for example," he said, "lost 50 percent of their IT people in the last three years. That's slash and burn."

Wayne County, Mich.

Carla Sledge, Wayne County's CFO, drove home Jarreau’s point, saying that between 2002 and 2010, housing foreclosures increased to six times the previous rate, tax revenues dropped, employee health costs doubled even with plan changes and a larger employee share of costs, and pension costs shot up for the county's 7,700 retirees. Staff took 10 percent salary cuts, there were hiring freezes, layoffs, furloughs, and elimination of all non-mandated payments. Departments were consolidated from 12 to nine, and according to Sledge "we're being sued by everybody." If the county were a private company, she said, it would be out of business.

But since counties cannot go out of business, CIOs and county officials are partnering to come up with ideas to make ends meet and keep delivering services.

The Wayne County data center, said Deputy CIO David Edwards, was a single point of failure for all county operations. Maintenance and support costs were rising, and then one day, water rose ankle deep in the facility. Edwards says the county wasn't doing a good job of being in the "data center business." Building a new data center would be too expensive and maintenance costs would continue, regardless. So the county decided to outsource its data center management to Secure24, a private firm.

Edwards said the partnership solved the data center issues of disaster recovery with redundant centers. Management, security and other necessities were taken over by Secure-24 at a fraction of the cost of owning and operating the county's own center. The county also began to offer data center services to both public and private entities, which further lowered its costs. "We redirected our efforts to what we were good at," said Edwards. "I released my death grip on having to have control of the data center."

Another advantage was that companies who might otherwise be looking at moving from the region were shown the data center and offered competitive pricing. The county has the infrastructure now to support cloud computing, reducing operational costs and licensing fees.

Another efficiency, said Edwards, was combining all the county's e-gov services on one portal, and automating and streamlining antiquated internal processes with workflow so that "everyone didn't need to touch every single piece of paper." Data center outsourcing did not result in loss of staff, said Edwards, they were refocused on other priority tasks.

The county’s economic development team also created an application to assist those facing foreclosure.

Shared Services

Jarreau cited a number of county shared services programs. “Westchester County, N.Y., is able to use shared services to better serve their constituents as well as other local governments” said Jarreau. “Oakland County, Mich., is getting ready to employ a hybrid cloud, and inviting vendors in to use their data center to provide applications to other governments.

“Johnson County, Kansas, is providing shared services to cities in their county,” he continued, “and they were able to run broadband to some poor areas of their county for economic development.”

Shared services, and regional cooperation require management skills as well as technical expertise and broad coordination. NACo, said Jarreau, is increasingly partnering with state CIOs, and the organization has a close relationship with NASCIO the state-level CIO group.

“Many CIOs are considered leaders in their counties, said Jarreau, so the officials they report to have given them more responsibilities in addition to their CIO duties. “As an example, Phil Bertollini, CIO of Oakland County, Mich., is also the deputy executive for the county.”

Randy Johnson, NACo’s GIS Committee Chair and Commissioner of Hennepin County, Minn., said technology is now moving from “it has to be invented,” to buying standardized off-the-shelf applications for e-mail, calendaring, contacts and other basic requirements from major players like Google and Microsoft.

Google vs. Microsoft

Multnomah County, Ore., the host county for NACo’s 76th annual conference, has transitioned to Google Apps for Government, said Sherry Swackhamer, the county’s CIO and director of county assets. The reason? The county had a complex environment that was hard to maintain. Every time the county renewed its contract it got locked in again, storage was limited, etc. “Upgrades were planned for a year,” she said, “they took a year to implement, and when they were done, we were two upgrades behind."

With Google Apps for Government, said Swackhamer, “We got chat, video chat, Google sites and archiving that we didn’t have before. We were already behind on Exchange and Outlook upgrades and were not looking forward to doing it again.”

Swackhamer said the county was looking for more reliability and security, and Google provided that. Fifteen servers were reduced to one virtual server. Other software was eliminated, a server for Blackberries went away and Google handled encryption and spam filtering. “Ninety percent of e-mail is spam,” said Swackhamer, “no spam hits our network now – ever.”

The transition was carefully planned, said Swackhamer, with a pilot group of users, dress rehearsals, training, a resource room in every building, guides with special t-shirts and more. The rollout occurred all at once, following the pattern of a successful implementation by Larimer County, Colo. Google Apps is a platform, said Swackhamer, so support had to be re-thought, and is still evolving, though help desk tickets are down 50 percent.

Jon Walton, CIO of the City and County of San Francisco joked that he was glad Multnomah County went with Google Apps, because Microsoft then dropped its price to San Francisco. San Francisco is very decentralized, said Walton, and Microsoft is working well in that environment.

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.