By Bryan Gold
The Hampton Roads Information Technology Consortium has reduced costs while increasing service delivery and economic competitiveness.
Although it might be hard to believe, there was a time when parts of high-tech Virginia struggled to get technology out of first gear. Of course, that was a number of years ago, before the Internet became the major presence that it is today. But thanks to a regional focus, the Internet helped one Virginia region put technology use in overdrive.
The Hampton Roads Information Technology Consortium, featuring some local jurisdictions in the southeastern part of the commonwealth -- including many near the shore of the Atlantic Ocean -- was born out of a desire to share in the development of technology projects to reduce costs.
"We recognized from the get-go that we were making it possible for some jurisdictions to deploy technology, [because] on their own they simply wouldnt have the resources," said John C. Eagle, director of Information Services for Hampton, which has a population of nearly 140,000. "Through economies of scale, we could reduce costs
sufficiently to allow smaller jurisdictions to participate."
The other participants in this unique form of knowledge management are James City County and the cities of Chesapeake, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Virginia Beach. Besides making Virginia Beach the largest city, its 430,000 residents make it the anchor of a region
containing nearly 1.5 million.
Informal Yet Informational
Today the consortiums participants meet for breakfast once a month to discuss the issues and to make sure everyone is on the same page. Not all participants in the consortium have to take part in every project, but the gathering gives IT directors in the Hampton Roads region a chance to discuss situations and come up with solutions.
"The spirit of cooperation that exists today between the IT executives of each jurisdiction is really something that I am very proud to be a part of. Its amazing the amount of sharing and discussion that goes on," Eagle said.
"We explore regional approaches to building technology infrastructure for performing city functions and delivery of services to the citizens," said Ramesh Kapoor, director of Information Services in Norfolk. Kapoor is also the current president of the Metropolitan Information Exchange (MIX), an organization of local chief information officers and IT directors.
But there was a time when the Internet brought the group together. Fixed budgets and scarce resources had let a number of opportunities to exploit new technology go unexplored. But at the same time the jurisdictions were being told to meet the challenge of creating more effective and efficient government through the use of technology. So it was only fitting that the consortiums first project was shared Internet connectivity and Internet services, including the Web and e-mail.
"This was in a time when connectivity was expensive and no jurisdiction had a Web site. The larger cities of Norfolk and Virginia Beach could have probably gotten Internet access all by themselves, but instead they provided the leadership to make it a shared project through which
smaller cities could also get connected," Eagle confided.
By including the rest of the group, Norfolk, which has about 215,000 residents, and Virginia Beach were able
to significantly reduce their costs. In fact, Eagle noted, the consortium has been very effective at exploiting the cost-saving opportunities possible by taking a regional approach. In addition to reduced costs, the direct benefits to the participants through collaborative efforts include:
enhanced service delivery, expansion of available resources through shared knowledge, improved relationships at all levels, a stronger influence over vendors and third-party technology providers, regional economic development and cooperation and the advancement of electronic government, which is especially important in post-Y2K times.
Besides shared Internet connectivity, specific projects developed and sponsored by the consortium include regional technology fairs, the Hampton Roads Smart Region Initiative for increasing economic competitiveness and quality of life in the region, and shared standards. Last year, the consortium was a major player on a Y2K task force that included outside jurisdictions such as the American Red
Cross, the military, hospitals, utilities, banks and the Federal Aviation Administration.
"This concept can work in any region if there is a willingness to explore opportunities and share resources," Kapoor said. "We recognize that each of us is different in size and environment and bring different levels of resources to the table. But we have worked together for over 10 years now and get excited about wanting to make things happen regionally instead of having each of us look for the same solution independently. I think our success comes from our commitment to finding common ground and building upon our strengths so that everyone benefits."
The benefits should continue as technology matters are expected to keep members of the Hampton Roads Information Technology Consortium busy, giving them a reason to continue meeting once a month as they continue to leverage pooled resources for new projects.
Eagle said one project is to build a regional Web portal called Smart Region. Another project involves a shared criminal justice information system through Web technology called InfoTech. "In both cases, the regional cooperation between jurisdictions is unbelievable at all levels. I think the consortium is the wave of the future, as technology has enabled us to build virtual bridges between one another and this, in turn, is helping everybody out."
Bryan M. Gold is a writer based in Washington, D.C.