ERP means more than cleaning up back-office business processes for Richmond, Calif., a community of 90,000 situated across the bay from San Francisco. Once home to one of the West Coasts largest shipbuilding operations, Richmond views the technology as a cornerstone of an ambitious economic-development plan meant to put the city on even footing with its affluent, tech-savvy Bay Area neighbors.

To be sure, the city expects its $5 million ERP installation to deliver benefits like up-to-the-minute financial reports and streamlined payroll administration. But, like a growing number of public-sector ERP users, Richmond also wants the software to change how it interacts with businesses, citizens and other governments.

The massive, multi-phased project stretches across Richmonds 16 government departments, touching nearly everything the municipality does. The city threw the switch on the financial portion of its ERP software package in December. It was scheduled to fire up the human resources/payroll module in May, along with a plant maintenance application designed to help the public works department track inventory and facilitate repairs. After that comes integration with the citys GIS system and the roll out of Web-based business licensing, permitting and employee benefits systems.

City Manager Isiah Turner calls the overhaul vital to Richmonds effort to replace its reliance on heavy industry with a new economy based on technology and light industrial jobs. According to Turner, the broad-ranging ERP installation is key to drawing employers to the municipality, which sits just up the road from Californias Silicon Valley.

"Technology certainly is playing a large role in how we are viewed by potential investors in the community. If youre online and youre a cutting-edge city, it makes you more attractive to businesses in terms of relocation and expansion," he said. "We want to put our best foot forward, so that when people survey the Bay Area, we have the same assets that [nearby cities] have."

Selling the Plan

For Turner, the project began with a sales job. Leery of bringing a $5 million undertaking before city leaders without a plan for paying the bill, he convinced the citys largest departments to squeeze money from their existing operations to fund the implementation.

"I took nine of my department heads with the biggest budgets and told them, I want you to help me invest in you and your staffs future and in this organizations future," Turner said. "I asked each one of them for a certain appropriation from their budget."

When those key departments -- which account for about 80 percent of Richmonds overall spending -- decided to pony up, other city departments followed suit, and the plan won city council approval. A lease-financing arrangement allows Richmond to spread the projects cost over five years.

Turner said he entered the long, complex undertaking with caution, given the well-publicized failure rate for large information technology projects in government. But ultimately, he and other city leaders decided the projects benefits outweighed the potential dangers.

"I knew the venture itself was a calculated risk. This kind of mammoth change on our part did produce fear in our organization," Turner said. "But I knew in some instances, you just have to believe in yourself and show people you believe in them. We had to set a tone for what our future would be like in the next two or three years if we all move down this path in a cooperative mode."

Playing Catch-Up

Richmonds broad-scope approach is typical of government ERP projects, according to Tom Shirk, president of SAP Public Sector Services, supplier of the citys software package. Unlike private companies -- which began updating and integrating core business systems years ago -- many governments are just now replacing their aging, stand-alone finance and payroll applications, he said. At the same time, theyre moving

Steve Towns, Editor Steve Towns  | 

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic.