In Newport Beach, Calif. -- just 45 miles south of Los Angeles -- IT Manager Rob Houston has his work cut out for him: He's been tasked with tying two dozen city departments and offices and 28 different software systems into one IT infrastructure, all while the government moves into a brand new civic center.

“You have to be creative and cautious in a project like this,” Houston says. “You can’t just concentrate on getting all these systems to work well together -- they need to keep working well together. And in this rapidly changing technology environment, that’s the real challenge: ability and agility.”

A multi-million-dollar IT budget goes a long way toward meeting those goals, as does having knowledgeable people spending that money. Newport Beach has leveraged both over the past few years to build a virtual Newport Beach government inside a very real, state-of-the-art City Hall.

Newport Beach's Citizen Task Force

It all started in 2010, when Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry -- who understands and appreciates the power of database technology in government applications -- and the City Council launched a citizen’s task force to examine all city services and departments, and assess the technology available to them.

That task force started by assessing the records repository software. The previous system, purchased in 1998 for $645,000, was little more than a digital filing cabinet, said Houston. And the city wanted something more than an electronic filing cabinet that plays well with other software systems.

The records repository must support electronic workflows that facilitate the routing of documents involving multiple officials and departments. It needed a Web portal with adequate security measures to allow public and private access to different files in the repository. It also needed to monitor records retention schedules and provide auditing to track who opens which restricted records and when. Moreover, City Manager David Kiff has made paperless a priority for the new city hall, Houston said, and a records repository with such features can save hundreds of dollars a year on paper purchases, not to mention the labor saved not working with that paper.

To build the system the task force envisioned, it was vital to start with open architecture database software that could easily integrate with the numerous softwares in use, or to be used, by the various departments and offices in the new building.

Records Management and Legacy Systems Upgrade

The city whittled its choices down to three different records systems proposed by four different vendors. It ultimately selected a Laserfiche system from reseller AMI-The Paperless Company that met all the task force criteria and came in at a price that was not “prohibitive.”

Also, the Los Angeles-based company agreed to a “train-the-trainer” approach to professional services; AMI engineers paid weekly visits to provide oversight to Newport Beach staff undertaking the installation of the repository and the accompanying software modules, building the workflows and engineering the integrations.

“We were able to pour into them the knowledge needed to deploy the different parts of the system and get started out on their own,” said AMI senior consultant Tom Denton. “They wanted it that way. They wanted to be able to build and maintain the system on their own. Some organizations can’t accomplish what Newport Beach did for lack of IT resources. They had IT resources, and they had IT management that made it possible.”

Newport Beach also funded a major upgrade to many old legacy systems that required replacement. While the city paid AMI less than half of what it paid for the old repository, from there the city has embarked on a significant investment program that will exceed $9 million in software, hardware and professional services by the end of 2015, which is when the last of the system will be built out. Included among those purchases made and to be made are:

  • A new voice over internet protocol (VoIP) phone system.
  • A new Exchange 2010 email system, which will provide contacts and calendaring features to City Hall offices and via the Web.
  • A new MYNB Public Stuff public service request software, which will allow residents to use tablets and smartphones to send public service requests, not just to City Hall, but to the appropriate department therein and appropriate person within those departments.
  • A new Geocortex geographical information system will allow residents to easily create custom made maps of the city on Newport Beach’s website and overlay them with their choice of different layers of data or imaging.
  • A new enterprise resource planning system to house all financial, human resource and asset information. This will be the core software that will assist in budgeting, processing payments, payroll, and tracking employee assets and projects.
  • A new Novus Agenda system will allow touch screen voting on city council agendas that will be compiled electronically with Web based agenda report review.
  • Connect Newport Beach will use a software platform called MindMixer to enhance community engagement in the city by allowing residents to submit ideas, respond to events, and participate in city polls and surveys.
  • And the police department will get new computer aided dispatch and records management systems, which digitize police activity from the moment the call comes in through arrest and booking.

There are additional softwares to be integrated into Newport Beach’s IT infrastructure, Houston said, but eventually the city hopes to be running on half of the original 28 as older systems are replaced and consolidated into the newer platforms.

“Newport Beach is a community where citizens have high expectations of their government,” said Mayor Curry. “It’s important to them and us to have the flexibility to continue to provide high quality service and have tech tools available to enhance the experience residents have interacting with their city.”

Such enhancements include the recent completion of a $135 million dollar Civic Center complex that includes a 450-car parking garage — sunken in the ground to preserve water views — a dog-park, a foot-bridge to that park, a library expansion connecting the library to the new city hall, and a civic green. Less visible will be the return the city will reap on these investments, which will continue long after the bond financing the project is paid down, Curry says.

Newport Beach's Additional Savings

Energy-efficient features in the new city hall — advanced lighting, climate-control technology, and plentiful use of natural light and ventilation — cost $1 million, but are expected to save $85,000 a year, according to the city’s website. Even less visible, the IT investment is expected to save the city considerably more.

“It’s hard to estimate so early on, but we should save about $500,000 a year, and that’s being conservative,” Houston says. “The efficiencies provided from these new technological changes have already created savings, and will further create efficiencies in day-to-day operations by offering so many additional services electronically that were once handled in-person. Dramatic savings have already arrived as we pursue our paperless document process. We have leveraged the Laserfiche document system to help us reduce our City Hall printer count from over 150 down to 20.”

In taking the train-the-trainer approach, Newport Beach also saves on professional consulting costs by having expert IT staff. This provides a great resource for maintenance and for future plans to push the digital document strategy into all city department processes, Houston says. Currently IT staff is working with the fire department to organize and digitize all fire records, and create a centralized records system containing proper security and audit tracking to ensure access is limited to the appropriate staff members.  But Houston offers a note of warning for other do-IT-yourselfers.

“The Laserfiche project on its own is doable,” he said. “But trying to do all the rest of these ambitious projects at the same time is not for the faint of heart. Our staff want to get their fingers into this project. They actually want to get in and build the workflows themselves.”

Those staffers have just completed the daunting task of scanning more than 3 million pages of records dating back to the city’s founding in 1906.  Now the work is underway to make all the data easy to find and, more importantly, readily available from any Internet device.

Still, the new city hall offers plenty for those wanting to do business the old fashioned way: in person. All of the city’s permitting agencies are going to be working behind one centrally located counter, offering one-stop shopping for anyone preferring to do business face-to-face.

“Now that we’ve got this brand new modern facility, we certainly want residents to come in and enjoy it,” Curry says. “We just wanted to give them the option not to. The new Newport Beach City Hall is still only going to be open from 8 to 5 Monday through Friday. The virtual Newport Beach City Hall will never close.”

Chris Wacker is Executive vice president of Laserfiche, an enterprise content management software provider to 3 millions users world wide. Photos courtesy of the city of Newport Beach, Calif.