Breaking Barriers

Regional IT initiatives prove the value of shared applications.

by / September 30, 2005
Built-in impediments can make sharing difficult for governments, many of which -- especially regional local governments -- have similar needs. Political, legal and personal barriers tend to block progress toward joint technology solutions.

Considering that the goal of local elected officials is to serve their own constituents, it's easy to see why governments often have trouble sharing IT resources with other jurisdictions. Serving needs of nonresidents seemingly contradicts their goal.

There is also great risk in committing to a partnership, a risk that is multiplied when dealing with governing bodies. Many agencies simply do not want to risk their futures on the promises of others.

In small numbers, however, government coalitions are forming and demonstrating that shared applications can work exceptionally well. These alliances also represent traditional American ideals, such as lower cost and ingenuity.

Several forces are pushing governments toward a shared application model. The need to meet new service demands is of highest priority. Replacing aging infrastructure, reducing expenses and delivering better capabilities are other leading motivators. Just as significant, shared IT applications also tend to improve relations among independent government organizations, perhaps strengthening cooperation in other areas.

Tar Heels Sticking Together
One North Carolina county's endeavor to build its own property tax application led to a surprisingly rare partnership. What began as a single county project evolved into a six-county shared application model. While the software isn't revolutionary, the success of an actual shared application may be.

In the late 1990s, as older methods of collecting taxes were becoming incompatible with modern demand, Wake County, N.C., embarked on a voyage. As a singular entity, the county decided it needed a property tax system that would properly benefit county coffers and improve county services.

At the time, there weren't many options. In the past, Wake County had taken the bold step of seeking other local governments to collaborate on a joint property tax application, but no one wanted to take on the initial risk. Wake County officials then scoured the marketplace for an integrated tax system that included computer-aided mass appraisals, real-estate records, property tax listings, billings and collections. After an exhaustive search, they were unable to find any that would meet their needs.

"At that point, Wake County started building a software solution themselves," said Rebecca Troutman, director of Research and Public Technology at the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners (NCACC), an organization that facilitates county government collaboration. "They contracted with a local development company, Intelligent Information Systems [IIS], to help the county build the system."

As the software was developed, county officials met with the NCACC to discuss the charitable notion of opening the software to all local governments in the state. As the second largest county in North Carolina, Wake County had development resources other counties didn't, so it was decided that Wake County and the NCACC would begin forming an open and voluntary collaboration. Other counties chose whether they wanted to be involved.

Lee Mandell is director of Information Technology and Research for the North Carolina League of Municipalities (NCLM), a close working partner of the NCACC. He said that building the software first made the idea of a shared application much more welcoming.

"All the other projects I know about started with a blank piece of paper," he said. "Somebody said, 'We need a local government accounting system, and since we all run under the same accounting rules, it should be easy to put together.' But they started with a blank slate and tried to build from there. The difference here is Wake County decided it needed a new tax application, and in the process of building it for itself, decided it wanted to open it to all local governments in North Carolina. So when other local governments came in, they were actually reacting to a fully designed package."

The project, now known as the NCACC Collaborative Property Tax System (NCPTS), took on its first partner county in 2003 and now serves six counties. Wake County paid for all the software development, then ceded all ownership rights to IIS and the NCACC, which then distributed the software to member counties, each of which contribute to offset the costs of licensing and rights-to-use.

Within the NCACC, a software steering committee was created, composed of rotating representatives of the different affiliated organizations. As one benefit for its investment, Wake County maintains a permanent seat on the steering committee. In addition, Wake County doesn't need to fund future investments or software upgrades, but the county still gets to take advantage of newer software versions. The other member counties get to use the original software without cost. The NCPTS also encourages new software development.

"Wake County built the original components to snap together," said Troutman. "Our largest county, Mecklenburg, wanted everything converted to a [Microsoft] .NET environment. The first two components were built in .NET's precursor, J++, so Mecklenburg County is paying for conversion of the first two components."

Come Together
The NCPTS continues to seek other North Carolina counties to participate. The difficulty is, in part, finding a common ground. Many North Carolina counties consist of only a few thousand people and have little in common with larger counties. These very small counties may find that this project doesn't meet their needs or that their return on investment may be too low.

But North Carolina has what some states do not: rules and accounting standards that come directly from the state treasurer and apply identically to all counties. These rules and standards provide a solid foundation for counties with similar needs and attributes. Having a strong facilitating organization like the NCACC also is critical, so while not every county is likely to be a partner in this endeavor, those with truly similar goals can take part in a shared application project.

"For a long time, people have said it doesn't make any sense for us all to either develop our own or negotiate with vendors, when in fact, we are all governed by the same statutes," said Mandell. "With all that commonality, it was just logical for people to take the next step and develop a low-cost program that would meet the needs of -- perhaps not everybody -- but a wide range. But it was getting over that hump of starting with a clean sheet of paper."

Troutman said the NCACC would like to see many counties participate, but growth will hinge on working out bugs in the model and expanding the model to include more applications, she said, such as the small permits and inspections program currently under development.

"Wayne County began its search for a new property tax system for primarily three reasons: to replace its old legacy system, which was losing its support; to move to an industry standard; and to add additional functionality, especially in collections enforcement," said Keith Goff, Wayne County IT analyst. "After extensive research of existing property tax systems in different counties across North Carolina, we chose to be the first county to implement NCPTS." efforts

The NCPTS is a rare system that offers a low-cost solution to cash-strapped counties while encouraging development through partnership and collaboration. Best of all, it gives county governments more control over their own futures.

"Our membership should be the ones that decide their destiny," said Troutman. "No one else, not a vendor, not state government, not even the NCACC. We just provide the structure, as it were, to make those types of decisions. After all, this isn't a crapshoot. This is the counties' bread and butter, and if it doesn't work, they don't get any money."

The NCPTS member counties are pleased with the project so far. "We have implemented improved collections procedures with positive results," said Goff. "We've streamlined our listing and billing functions, and have assurance that the system will stay current as technology advances and property tax laws change."

Texas Three-Step
A trio of Texas cities is undergoing a similar experience. Circumstances beyond their control led them to consider a joint venture, proving that even cities can work together.

The neighboring cities of Arlington, Grand Prairie and Carrollton used back-office software from the same systems integration company. A couple of years ago, the company informed the cities, and other customers, that it was dropping support for their version of the software and that an upgrade would be required.

After reviewing the upgrade costs, each city wanted a lower-cost solution that included packages such as full financials, HR, payroll and procurement.

"They found they couldn't get them quite as cheap as they thought," said Richard Price, director of Research and Information Services of the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG). "Then they got to thinking maybe they could purchase [an ERP package] for less by doing a joint purchase, so they came to the NCTCOG to facilitate that for them. They knew they would have issues dealing directly with each other because of politics, but the council is a neutral party. Our whole mission is to help people come together on projects that span jurisdictions."

The three cities and the NCTCOG began a selection process for an ERP implementation. They saved money immediately because there was only one RFP instead of three. The group also visited Oklahoma City, which had just completed a PeopleSoft implementation for a city staff that was similar in size to the three cities' staffs combined. After reviewing RFPs, PeopleSoft and Lawson were the finalists, and Lawson was the eventual winner.

"There was substantial savings going that route," said Price. "We are doing one implementation instead of three. When we do the implementation, the three cities bring all their people together at the same time to discuss that implementation. That has substantially reduced the professional services costs, which is the big cost of ERP implementations."

The strategy works by having the NCTCOG host the applications. The NCTCOG also licenses and owns the software, and each city has an agreement with them for services, and makes payments to them for the hardware and software. To make things legal, the NCTCOG negotiated with Lawson to include a right-to-use clause in the contract.

"The structure of this project provides a way to minimize the up-front costs to the point that possibilities are opened to small and medium-sized governmental entities," said Arlington, Texas, CIO Tim Barbee. "Sharing purchasing power and executing annual contracts with vendors for groups of cities may result in better pricing, translating to additional savings."

The end result was a savings of nearly $10 million on implementation. With so much extra capital, the NCTCOG bought new servers and developed a disaster recovery plan that involves two new storage area networks (SANs). The SANs are fiber-connected and continuously in sync, which makes restoring a failed SAN much easier. In addition, each city now has a separate reporting server so multiple reports from one city don't bog down the whole system.

"When they share the cost, we can do things that were above and beyond what they had, but for less [money] than if they had done their own implementation," said Price. "If you are willing to share, you can save a substantial amount of money."

Besides saving money and getting a higher return on investment, there is one unexpected benefit that perhaps trumps all others.

"These cities have bonded with each other," said Price. "And they're energized by working together."

With a scheduled production date of early 2006, the three cities and the NCTCOG are excited for the project to get under way. Barbee noted that a "benefit we [correctly] identified up-front is the sharing of information between the cities involved and how that leads to better processes."

Not only will this project revolutionize how the three cities work, it may also help revolutionize how governments everywhere collaborate.

"The applications provide enterprisewide productivity enhancements that will benefit each organization for years," said Barbee.

Divided We Stand
Here and there across the United States, cities and counties divvy up tasks and applications among partner governments to achieve a common goal. Virtually all of these collaborative efforts are the work of governments that exist near one another. As famed geographer and cartographer Waldo Tobler posited in his first law of geography, "Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things." In accordance with the law, governments near each other, both in location and purpose, are likely to be more successful when collaborating on a project.

In 1996, 300 local and regional government interests in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area began taking part in a program known as MetroGIS. The program is a joint effort in which members all contribute their GIS data to a central source. "MetroGIS is a federation of many interests created to coordinate organizational needs, policy and technical aspects of the creation, documentation, updating and delivery of geospatial data commonly needed by the community," said MetroGIS Staff Coordinator Randy Johnson.

In other words, participants can more easily access regional GIS data, which in turn helps local government improve public service. In addition, MetroGIS built a shared metadata application known as Datafinder, a tool to help participants easily share and apply GIS data.

"MetroGIS was designed to address the need for efficiency," said Kathy Covert, an associate strategist with the Federal Geographic Data Committee, a federal agency that helps foster geospatial initiatives across the country. "The local governments wanted a tapestry of the available data sets. MetroGIS is like the quilt that is knitted together from the data sets."

The Metropolitan Council is a nonprofit organization designed to support the collaborative activities of MetroGIS member organizations. The council also coordinates MetroGIS and hosts the Datafinder application, which is freely accessible for MetroGIS members.

One government agency participating in MetroGIS is the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District (MMCD), which uses the regional GIS data sets available to manage the mosquito population for the 2.5 million people in the seven-county Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

"The process for assembling the data we need has become much easier under the MetroGIS data-sharing agreements, and our costs have gone way down," said Nancy Read, MMCD technical services leader. "The regional data sets will also be a big plus because we will not have to spend our time standardizing data from one county to another. We can go about our business, controlling the mosquito population."

Perhaps the biggest benefit of shared applications, Read said, is that government can improve its core function -- serving the public.

"Before MetroGIS, it was extremely time-consuming to obtain the data we needed from all the counties and integrate it. Now we can focus on how to use the data to better serve residents."

In at least a few places, a willingness to share is helping regional governments collaborate, innovate and achieve a common goal.
Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.