In February, Oakland County, Mich., Executive L. Brooks Patterson broke the news of a national shared services computing initiative — among Oakland County, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments and the National Association of Counties (NACo).
Over the years, Oakland County has provided shared computing services to 62 local jurisdictions. Now with blessings from Patterson and NACo Executive Director Larry Naake, that initiative will greatly expand — NACo will provide funding and governance to leverage this shared services model into a national system available to America’s more than 3,000 counties, boroughs and parishes.
Photo: Oakland County, Mich., Executive L. Brooks Patterson
The idea is a bit like online dating. Today many relationships start and develop online, and NACo’s Application Store aims to draw counties into mutually beneficial relationships around IT systems. G2G Cloud Solutions — Oakland County’s initiative — is a “government-to-government cloud” that, with the help of private-sector partners, will provide computing services to other counties and municipalities using an upgraded cloud platform. It also will offer a number of local government applications developed in-house.
Oakland County already is accepting subscribers for a menu of services, such as online payments and Web hosting. The online payments application began as an e-commerce portal in 2000 called Access Oakland. After a slow start, Access Oakland included 50 products and services and generated $17 million in gross revenue as of last year, with $750,000 in net revenue reinvested into the technology, according to Oakland County CIO and Deputy County Executive Phil Bertolini. The application has been updated for the cloud and rolled out to six different communities, including Auburn Hills, Mich.
Auburn Hills Deputy Treasurer Dawn Keiser said that city residents can now use the payment system to pay local taxes, parking tickets, special assessments and utilities. Until Auburn Hills began using the cloud service, she said, the city didn’t accept credit or debit cards because of security requirements and credit card fees. Keiser said that with G2G Cloud Solutions, there were no fees to the city. Users pay $2.50 for an e-check, and credit card fees are based on the payment amount, ranging from $2.50 up to 2.75 percent of larger payments.
“All they have to do is go to our website, click on it and it takes them right over to Oakland County’s payment site,” she said. The property tax payment feature loads directly into the city’s system, she said. The installation went smoothly, and once the contract was signed, it took less than a week to be up and running.
“I would highly recommend it,” said Keiser. “It’s beneficial for residents and customers who want to pay for something. It makes it convenient and easy; they can get a confirmation number and a receipt right then. The money typically comes in 24 to 48 hours later, and it’s very easy to see on our bank statement what it is for.”
G2G Cloud Solutions also will offer a Web suite, which was piloted in Wolverine Lake, Mich., after the former provider pulled out. Treasurer Michael Kondek said he thinks the commercial website providers left because revenues from the 4,300-member community did not meet their expectations.
Bertolini said Oakland County will provide a Health and Human Services Communication Portal to all Michigan counties for free, which will help those counties and give them a chance to try out the cloud platform. Other Oakland County applications that will be provided to the cloud will be a services registration application for things like flu shots, a restaurant inspection application and animal licensing.
According to NACo CIO Bert Jarreau, most large counties help local governments in their regions that don’t have the resources to roll out systems themselves. Orange County, Fla.; Cook County, Ill.; and the Houston public safety community are a few examples of big counties sharing systems. “If you could take what they are doing at a regional level and make it easy to do at a national level, then you’re providing a real service,” Jarreau said.
Another heavyweight contributor to the Application Store’s national rollout is Orange County, Calif. Assessor Webster Guillory — head of NACo’s Essential County Technology Subcommittee — will help create a governance structure for the national initiative and look at submitted applications to see which can be rolled out nationally. Guillory has been lobbying NACo for more than a decade to launch such an initiative, said Jarreau.
Guillory has a reputation for big shared services projects: He launched a California county assessor’s shared services project to standardize records, centralize management and reduce costs. The Standard Data Record project currently enrolls 40 of California’s 58 counties and reduced annual costs for members by up to $60,000 each.
Maricopa County, Ariz., which deployed kiosks for recorders after three years of development, could be another system worth borrowing. “We should be able to learn from what other people did so that we can replicate it and get it done faster,” Guillory said. “The county has a great kiosk, and I say, ‘Don’t start from ground zero. Why don’t you start on the shoulders of Maricopa County? Why don’t you start on the shoulders of the California assessors? Start above ground zero.’”
Many counties, however, aren’t yet ready to offer services or subscribe to them, so NACo is urging them to do what online dating sites do: Fill out a form about themselves, say what they are seeking in a partner and start getting acquainted. Information on applications, contacts and other resources will be available through ad hoc searches.
Launching in July, the Application Store will be accessible with a single sign-on from NACo and will be available to any county — NACo membership isn’t required. Vendors won’t be allowed to access the store, so jurisdictions looking for a particular application shouldn’t be inundated by sales calls. Private-sector partners may be included, however, as the store is piloted and expands.
The Application Store may initially look like a catalog on one end and a government cloud on the other. But attendees at a recent NACo conference were buzzing about the possibilities. The store, for example, will offer a menu of best practices, RFPs, interlocal agreements and other legal documents that have successfully created and maintained long-term relationships. Why spend months developing an agreement when another county may have one that would work?
While many of Oakland County’s applications — such as the Health and Human Services Communication Portal and Web suite — are homegrown, some do have licensing implications. Bertolini said the county has worked out how costs could be absorbed through an initial upfront fee or handled through ongoing revenue streams.
In addition, Bertolini told a large group of county officials and technology vendors at NACo’s Legislative Conference that this was an opportunity for vendors to reinvent government procurement processes that companies have long complained about. He challenged the private sector to step up to the plate.
“When we’re developing our cloud,” said Bertolini, “there are proprietary licenses under the systems we’re building. And if I want to use that with others, we have a licensing issue. Potentially there are going to be fees paid to us to use those technologies. It’s time to reinvent the licensing. We need to be more agile in procurement.”
Washtenaw County, Mich., for example, purchased the document management system OnBase in 2007. When the city of Ann Arbor wanted the software, it simply used Washtenaw County’s RFP and just had to pay for additional seats. Ann Arbor CIO Dan Rainey said the city saved time and effort that would have been required to put out an RFP, evaluate the offers and take it to the City Council. Instead, Rainey was given a one-page agreement to become an additional user on Washtenaw County’s license.
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.