Report: Best Practices Guide for Local Governments

Local leaders share ideas in public safety, IT governance and 5 other categories.

by / June 17, 2011

About This Report

This report is based on the activities of the Digital Communities program, a network of public- and private-sector IT professionals who are working to improve local governments’ delivery of public service through the use of digital technology. The program — a partnership between
Government Technology and e.Republic’s Center for Digital Government — consists of task forces that meet online and in person to exchange information on important issues facing local government IT professionals.

More than 1,000 government and industry members participate in Digital Communities task forces focused on digital infrastructure, law enforcement and big city/county leadership. The Digital Communities program also conducts the annual Digital Cities and Digital Counties surveys, which track technology trends and identify and promote best practices in local government.

Digital Communities quarterly reports appear in Government Technology magazine in March, June, September and December.


Seismic shifts in the economy are forcing dramatic changes in the nation’s cities and counties. Many jurisdictions have made deep cuts across the board, eliminated entire functions, or both, while seeking new means of support and collaboration. This is a time when relevance and adaptability of government — and by extension, the public-sector information technology community — is being subjected to a very real-world test. What’s more, this test is being conducted in full public view, every day and with every encounter between citizens and their government.

The urgent question is around how well, how nimble and how agile government is at adapting to the current environment while never losing sight of the future. This special report offers some answers in the form of best practices gleaned from our extensive local government surveys.

For more than a decade, e.Republic’s Center for Digital Government has conducted its Digital Counties and Digital Cities surveys in partnership with the National Association of Counties and National League of Cities. These surveys gauge how local governments are using digital technologies to meet policy priorities and service demands. This special report collects good ideas from hundreds of responses to the 2010 surveys.

The surveys asked respondents to provide information on their activities in these seven major programmatic categories:
 

  • IT Governance
  • Public Safety, Emergency Management and Corrections
  • Health, Social and Human Services
  • Commerce, Labor and Taxation/Economic, Business, Community and Work Force Development
  • Finance and Administration, HR, Licensing and Permitting
  • Energy, Environment, Natural Resources, Parks and Agriculture
  • Citizen Engagement, Open Government and Online Service Delivery


A panel of market experts and former local government CIOs selected these examples based on the innovative nature of their approach, their connection to a strategic policy agenda within the implementing jurisdiction, results generated and the likelihood that the solution may be replicable in other communities. Judges also paid particular attention to integration and collaboration among departments and across regions.

We hope the following pages offer some new insight on the issues you’re dealing with and perhaps point you toward innovative new partnerships.

Below is a sampling of best practices highlighted in the

Digital Counties and Cities Best Practice Guide

.

 

Category  1
IT Governance
Oakland County, Mich.

Oakland County, Mich., was the standout in IT governance strategies for creating a service model that took into account end-users’ perspectives. In this category, DC judges considered only models where the CIO or CTO reported to the mayor or chief executive. Judges also looked for governance committees that included representation from executives across the spectrum of users and repeatable IT practices reflected in a published strategic plan.

Oakland County excelled in these areas. Since 1997, Oakland County has created a series of 24-month IT Strategic Plans designed to prioritize its technology activities. The plans are created by four IT leadership committees: The IT Steering Committee handles all internal matters regarding IT operations and the three other committees represent end-users, one for the courts, another for land use and the third for financial administration.

Technology job orders also are reviewed by these committees to ensure they align with county priorities. When the process was initially implemented, it didn’t sit well with some Oakland County executives — including Phil Bertolini, then leader of the Equalization Division of Oakland County’s Management and Budget Department. However, in 2001 when Bertolini became Oakland County CIO, he changed his mind when he realized the new system cleared a backlog of more than 900 IT job orders.

Previously Bertolini was accustomed to phoning friends in the IT department to clear each job order.

“As I got more immersed I realized that without our project and portfolio management and without this master plan and our ability to be transparent to the end-users and Board of Commissioners, we [in IT] would have probably been outsourced by now,” he said.

The IT Strategic Plan is a living document. This keeps the county from waiting until the end of a current plan’s two-year cycle to adjust priorities.

“There are two ways new projects can come in and be part of the master plan,” Bertolini said. “One, we can bump a lower priority project off the list. Two, [the agency submitting the new project] can bring additional funding to the table so we can hire additional resources at IT — outsourced resources.”

Before the change in 1997, IT employees frequently progressed with IT projects without getting necessary input from end-users. After 1997, the IT Strategic Plan mandated signoffs throughout any implementation. After more than 10 years of using the strategic plan’s methodologies, Bertolini has found that IT project leaders no longer need those signoffs to be mandated.

“We found out they were communicating on a regular basis anyway,” Bertolini said.

Many of the methodologies in Oakland County’s IT Strategic Plan originate from the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL), a set of concepts trademarked by the United Kingdom’s Office of Government Commerce.


Category  2
Public Safety, Emergency Managementand Corrections
Montgomery County, Md.

DC judges showed special interest in whether or not local governments deployed integrated justice systems. Judges wanted to see projects that gave approved users across agencies access to records through a single entrance point. The Integrated Justice Information System (IJIS) in Montgomery County, Md., integrates data from multiple law enforcement and criminal justice data sources, enabling personnel to retrieve information they need for investigations and processing via one system. The project was directed by a steering committee of representatives from the Montgomery County Police Department, Sheriff’s Department, Department of Corrections, the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, the Montgomery County Circuit Court, the county’s health and human services agency and the county’s Department of Technology Services. IJIS gives employees from each of these agencies access to data collected by other agencies in the group, assuming the employee in question has clearance to view the data. In the past, workers often filled out paper forms to request the data. And if an employee was only permitted to view certain parts of the data requested, the entire request often was denied, said Lisa Henderson, program manager for Montgomery County.

“We kept security close to the vest,” Henderson remarked.

The old process forced employees to eat up time making phone calls trying to get access to the data they needed. The new system solves that problem with an automated, role-based access mechanism.

“It can get pretty granular in terms of the access I can allow,” Henderson said. “I may want a person to see an entire page, or I may only want them to see a portion of a report. It depends on the needs of both the individual and the agency.”  

One IJIS module that recently became operational is the State’s Attorney’s Office case management system, which meets new legislative mandates and dramatically increases productivity for that office. Instead of accessing multiple databases, employees in that office receive their full workloads in a single package after signing onto the module. The IJIS system was one part of a strategic IT plan that included a Public Safety System Modernization Plan, a Communication Interoperability Plan, a Computer Aided Dispatch Road Map and a Public Safety Enterprise Architecture that are documented with the first three official papers published on the Montgomery County portal under the Public Safety Enterprise Strategies link.

Henderson said projects like IJIS are complicated to deploy because they must satisfy competing needs of different agencies. Discussion and planning can drag on for years without much result. Henderson credits the project’s steering committee ­— which includes representatives from each participating agency — with avoiding that trap.

“Because we bring all of these individuals to the table at the same time, the productivity we’re allowed to gain in conversation is pretty tremendous,” Henderson said. “That has solved a lot of implementation problems we would traditionally have seen.”

Plus, when selling the project to legislators, the group spoke with onevoice, which made a powerful impression, she added.



Category 3
Health, Social and Human Services
New York City

HHS-Connect, a program operated by New York City’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), served as this category’s model for Digital Communities judges, who wanted to see health and human services systems that significantly broke down information silos and shared information with other agencies — a common idea that may not seem new, but is still tricky to deploy. Agencies closely guard their health and human services data because it’s often sensitive and, by law, only viewable by certain people.

During the summer of 2010, the first component of the program, called Worker-Connect, went live. The Web-based system enables select employees in social service agencies to view data about a client collected by other agencies. The aim is to ensure caseworkers are aware of all services available to needy clients from other social services agencies in the area.

To make Worker-Connect possible, the system needed an airtight role-based permission sign-on to keep employees from viewing prohibited information. Also critical to HHS-Connect’s success is a governance structure that gives commissioners from all city health and human service agencies powerful incentives to participate actively on the executive steering committee, said Isidore Sobkowski, CIO of HHS-Connect. The governance structure stipulates that if a commissioner can’t attend a meeting, a deputy commissioner cannot attend in his or her place. Needless to say, no commissioner wants to be cut out of the process, so the rule results in consistent and active participation, said Sobkowski. On the rare occasions someone couldn’t attend meetings, the steering committee kept them informed, and the commissioners appeared driven to make the next meeting, she said.

“If somebody can’t make it, it’s funny how apologetic they are,” Sobkowski said.

New York City provides one of the largest social services infrastructures in the world, serving more than 8 million people. Because of New York’s consolidated city/county government structure across five separate counties, more than a dozen agencies provide services to the needy. Now all of those agencies access Worker-Connect through a software-as-a-service (SaaS) data-sharing structure with a common front-end information and intake process. The SaaS component of the project won recognition from the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM), a partnership of federal agencies aiming to support enterprisewide government information exchange standards and processes.

Clients only need to provide their personal information once to be included in a virtual integrated case file. Additional information, relevant only to specific agencies, is collected on an as-needed basis. With HHS-Connect, New York City has fundamentally changed how it provides social services by connecting clients, agencies and providers to ensure holistic and integrated services that wrap around a family.



Category  4
Commerce, Labor and Taxation – Economic, Business, Community and Work Force Development
Dakota County, Minn.  


Few counties responded to the survey category on commerce, labor and taxation, according to Digital Counties Survey judges. Those that did respond often didn’t score very well, mainly because county governments simply weren’t doing much in this area, said the judges.

However, the consolidated Real Estate Management System deployed in Dakota County, Minn., was one project judges considered worth imitating. The project consolidated multiple systems and databases used for assessing property taxes and notifying homeowners of what they owed. The idea to consolidate multiple outdated applications and databases to one user-friendly system may not seem earthshaking, but Dakota County’s project went live with little stress — both on the vendor and end-user sides.

Dakota County IT director Anita Scott said the project’s success stems from strong end-user participation in the selection of the new solution and a careful analysis of the contract. After selecting its vendor, Dakota County spent three months ensuring there were no gaps or shortcomings in the contract before executing the deployment. The extra time enabled county organizations to negotiate adjustments with the vendor before the project launched.

“When you’re doing your first proposal, you put an RFP out there. You put out requirements. You get responses back. You look at product, but you really don’t look through the requirements in a whole lot of deep-level detail when you’re doing the evaluations for vendors,” Scott remarked. “That’s why that gap analysis is so important.”

Scott considers a gap analysis an effective way to prevent the lapses in communication between governments and vendors that cause many high-profile project failures.

The strong participation from end-users can be attributed to enthusiastic support from executive-level county officials and by establishment of three project managers. One project manager coordinated IT employees, another coordinated end-users and the thirdrepresented the vendor.

“They all worked really well together,” Scott said. “We needed that focus in all three of those areas to keep things on track.”

With the new system, county employees can now process property tax data in real time. In the past, they had to input their data and submit it to the IT department for overnight processing. Now the system processes the data without IT staff involvement.

“It’s a cost savings because they can do things more quickly. There is no lag time,” Scott said.
 

Category  5
Finance and Administration, HR, Licensing and Permitting
Fairfax County, Va.  

Fairfax County, Va., met the judge’s criteria in this category for an aggressive enterprise approach, being one of the few municipalities of its size — more than 1 million people — to completely centralize IT. Since 2002, the county has combined permitting, inspection, licensing, cashiering, code enforcement and complaint activity for land use and construction onto a single enterprise software and database solution. The departments that collaborated on the project include Public Works and Environmental Services; Planning and Zoning; Health, Fire and Rescue; and Housing. Employees from all of those departments can access relevant information from one another via one application.

CTO Wanda Gibson said Fairfax County’s IT governance structure enabled the county to strike agreements between departments. When a department submits an IT proposal to the CTO, her staff looks for similar proposals from other agencies and arranges for the collaboration.

“We also work very closely with our [department] customers to help them realize their strategy,” Gibson said.

County developers, citizens and businesses now have a faster process for permit issuance, inspections and code enforcement services. Using the Web or interactive voice response, they can schedule inspections, access inspection results, apply for permits and check permit status, submit land-use code violations and complaints, view complaint status, and perform historical land use inquiries. The system is fully integrated with other systems, such as the state’s contractor license validation database, the Master Address Repository, the Land Development Plans and Waivers System, and the Real Estate Tax Assessment System.


Category  6
Energy, Environment, Natural Resources, Parks and Agriculture
Riverside, Calif.   

Judges approached this category looking for green IT and green building projects, but they also expressed a general interest in applications that were simply innovative. They highlighted a project from the Riverside, Calif., Water Quality Control Plant, which uses video cameras to document damage and repairs to city sewer lines The project is set to go live in July of 2011.

The video helps city crews determine the scope of repair work. “If it’s an area where we’ve had numerous spills or tree-root intrusion, [the video] gives them the ability to go in and see just how bad it is,” explained Richard Pallante, field operations manager for the plant.

Until now, the video was stored on DVDs maintained by Pallante, who would get a phone call whenever crews needed video to perform a repair. Often, he was stuck burning extra DVDs or posting the video on shared servers.

Now, video will be available online and on demand through the city work order system. “They can pull the video up and it has no impact on my workload at all,” Pallante said.

Pallante also plans to equip trucks driven by line-cleaning crews with rugged laptops so they can use the video application in the field. The system would be capable of alerting line cleaners when they’re approaching a sewer line that’s fragile and awaiting repair or cleaning. “They would have access to the video, all the work order history right there in real time,” Pallante said. “They need to know how bad it is.”

 

Category  7
Citizen Engagement, Open Government and Online Service Delivery
New York City   

New York City was praised as a model for consolidated city/county government with outstanding delivery of diverse services to its 8 million citizens. In 2010, through its highly regarded 311 system, the city served its 100-millionth caller while at the same time expanding its service online through NYC 311 Online.

In 2009, New York’s 311 services became available as a free iPhone application in Apple’s iTunes Store. The application has been downloaded more than 13,000 times to date.

Judges sought municipalities that publicly reported performance data for various government functions. New York is frequently recognized for its comprehensive open government site, NYCStat. The site, which includes a citywide performance reporting (CPR) function, is often considered the most comprehensive collection of publicly available performance data available, another plus for the judges. Likewise, the New York City DataMine increases the accessibility of public data generated by city agencies and other city organizations. As part of an initiative to improve government accessibility and accountability, this catalog supplies access to a repository of government-produced, machine-readable data sets.

In October 2009, New York City launched its Big Apps competition. The city solicited the creation of digital applications using public data and received more than 80 submissions. New York City made available more than 170 data sets from 30 agencies and commissions — including traffic updates, Wi-Fi hot spots, taxi medallion and driver information, and restaurant inspection data — and encouraged the public to create digital applications. More than 39,000 unique visitors have gone to the competition’s website.

Such competitions are often pitched by governments as offering opportunities for job growth and facilitating government transparency and accessibility. What’s notable about Big Apps is that it actually achieved both of those goals, at least anecdotally. One winner, NYC Way, was an app enabling users to make restaurant reservations, buy movie tickets, book tours and more. The three developers quit Wall Street jobs to expand their app nationally into a new project called My City Way. The team already has launched projects in the District of Columbia, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

Andy Opsahl

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