Economy Forces County IT Departments to Embrace Practicality

Trends among winners of the 2010 Center for Digital Government's Digital Counties Survey applicants show emphasis on practicality.

by / August 31, 2010

While the development of citizen-facing applications like podcasts and RSS feeds sometimes get lots of attention, the 2010 Digital Counties Survey announced in July found that more practical projects really are the ones dominating county IT departments' efforts.

The survey ­- conducted annually by Government Technology's Digital Communities program ­- measures trends in county IT deployments, priorities and challenges. This year's survey found large increases in what have long been considered government IT best practices: joint service deliveries, data center consolidations and mergers of redundant agencies.

While historically many agencies have resisted such efforts, the combination of declining tax revenues, staff reductions and cuts in operating hours have increased reliance on e-government and are necessitating collaborative and cross-jurisdictional projects, according to many Digital Counties survey respondents.

The survey found that agency managers are becoming more open-minded about relinquishing control and adopting new technologies as agency work forces are reduced. And 52 percent of respondents said they may cut public service delivery -- a 16 percent increase over 2009.

Many respondents believe the changes happening in their IT departments are more than temporary -- they're creating new standards for doing business. These trends may be resulting in more livable and economically sustainable solutions for the long term.

Power of Staff Reductions

When staff cuts result in the merging of two workers' jobs into one, government employees quickly develop openness to new IT approaches, said Barry Condrey, CIO of Chesterfield County, Va.

According to the survey, 72 percent of respondents said they plan to reduce staffing and operating hours -- a 3 percent increase from last year. A bigger workload for each employee is spurring fresh enthusiasm for innovative technology in Chesterfield County, according to Condrey. The county Sheriff's Office, for example, replaced in-person jail visitation with a video-conferencing package that saved the agency one and a half employees annually because guards no longer escort inmates to a traditional behind-glass visiting area.

And in Montgomery County, Md., the Department of Technology Services (DTS) faced a mandatory 19 percent staff reduction, which eliminated 26 positions. To make the loss more manageable, the agency transitioned to a new ERP system, which allowed the DTS to eliminate older, less efficient systems -- and the employees once required to maintain them.

"I will not say there won't be service impacts," said department CIO E. Steven Emanuel, explaining that the county's telecommunications installation staff -- which does all phone installations, rewiring and switchbox maintenance -- was hit the hardest.

"We believe that is one of the service impacts that will have the least significant impact on the rest of the organization," Emanuel said. "We're not building a whole lot of new buildings. We're trying to avoid doing a whole lot of moves."

Consolidation Rates Climbing

Respondents also are turning to server consolidations more frequently than in the past, according to the Digital Counties Survey. Among counties that responded, 78 percent were consolidating data centers, servers, applications and staff -- a 10 percent increase over 2009. Persuading agencies in Montgomery County to sacrifice hardware ownership had been a difficult task, Emanuel said, but using a new approach over the past two years resulted in more success.

"We no longer go after it with a sledgehammer," he said. "We're coming after it with feathers. We're saying, 'What do you need? Where are your pain points? How can we make you successful?' We've used those experiences and accomplishments to show other agencies that we're part of getting their mission complete so they see the benefit."

Paramount to Emanuel's sales pitch was convincing IT managers at individual agencies that they would have access to necessary data, as was the case with the Montgomery Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Moving HHS data to virtual servers within the DTS made HHS officials worried that they wouldn't receive administrative privileges to that data. Their concern proved untrue -- a fact the DTS uses to persuade other agencies to hand over their data.

In another finding, 69 percent of Digital Counties respondents reported new shared services implementations, 12 percent more than in 2009. Condrey moved Chesterfield County's GIS staff from the Department of Environmental Engineering to the Information Systems Technology Department. The change put GIS programmers together with the rest of the county IT staff, enabling them to combine expertise. Rather than focusing solely on environmental engineering, GIS staff now program applications on an enterprise or "shared services" basis for the entire county.

The technology department also deployed an application shared by the Sheriff's Office and Chesterfield County Fire and Emergency Medical Services that's designed to automatically schedule first responders. The application is programmed to staff all shifts with appropriately certified responders and assigns employees in a way that minimizes overtime, Condrey explained. When responders call in sick, the software checks for potentially available replacement employees -- and can even call those employees to see if they're available.

Change in Approach

For 2010, the judging approach for the Digital Counties Survey changed. In years past, participating governments put together an inventory of their cutting-edge technologies; this year, the counties had to submit numerous explanatory narratives on why the technologies they deployed actually improved life for government employees, citizens or both, explained Todd Sander, director of Government Technology's Digital Communities program.

Overall, applicants scored well if they reported collaborative projects involving multiple jurisdictions. "We were looking for places that were working within their own organizations, but also with their neighbors," Sander said. "Examples would be if they had townships or cities, or if they were working with school districts, the state or the federal government."

Server virtualization -- as a means to reduce server maintenance -- scored better too, Sander said.

Judges also gave high marks to projects that brought transparency and therefore accountability to government. One such project in Montgomery County -- measuring IT functionality against benchmarks and publishing the data on the county portal -- won the jurisdiction first place in the 500,000 or more population category.

Another area of particular interest among judges was deployment of technologies that reduced energy use in concrete ways, such as Chesterfield County's park light automation project. The upgrade eliminated the need for a worker to drive to various parks to turn off lights, which saved money by eliminated the possibility the lights would be on unnecessarily, Sander said.

Hanover County, Va., won the top spot in the 150,000-249,999 population category partially due to the large volume of IT efficiency projects the county implemented, Sander said.

"Probably more than anybody else in their group size, they were able to use technology to compensate for having to make do with fewer employees in dealing with the economic downturn," he said. "That included improved project management capabilities, a bunch of cop stuff and lots of mobile devices."

Charles County, Md., took top honors in the less than 150,000 population category. Sander cited several upgrades implemented there, one of which was video conferencing for human resources that enabled the county to interview job applicants who were located far away, eliminating the need for candidates to travel to the county's administrative

Illustration by Tom McKeith

Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.