Sarasota Symbiosis

Florida's Sarasota County brings the dream of intergovernmental cooperation to life.

by / August 3, 2004
It happens every day: Individual government IT departments across the nation upgrade technology to increase efficiency and productivity, only to come face to face with the high cost of such improvements.

For cash-strapped small jurisdictions, the expense of new systems leaves little choice but to maintain the status quo while watching enviously as others bask in the advantages of new technology.

What's a government entity suffering from chronic budget-deficit-disorder to do?

If you're Leon County, Fla., you turn to your neighbors in Sarasota County for a hosted, highly functional Internet-based budgeting and finance solution that costs nothing upfront and requires a downright cheap maintenance contract.

Two years ago, Sarasota positioned itself as a leader in government-to-government collaboration by acting as an application service provider (ASP) to other state and local jurisdictions.

Data Center of Attention
Sarasota County officials stepped into a platform-sharing role formerly performed nearly exclusively by the private sector. Ironically the transition was made possible by the demise of private-sector accounting giant Arthur Andersen LLP, the now-disgraced firm that was involved in both the Enron and WorldCom scandals.

For years, Sarasota County was the site of Arthur Andersen's huge data center, which serviced the company's 80,000 employees working around the globe. The center covered 5,000 square feet and included 300 servers, robotic backup tape capabilities, three terabytes of SAN storage and nearly 30 terabytes of overall storage, among other things.

As the former "big five" accounting firm began to crumble two years ago, Arthur Andersen officers sought to offset financial woes by offering their massive data center as a hosting and services provider. As the company truly imploded, however, they abandoned that idea and instead liquidated assets.

As luck would have it, Sarasota County executives were in contact with Arthur Andersen as a possible client when the hosting and services proposal still seemed viable. The erstwhile relationship meant county officials were among the first contacted when the company decided to sell the data center.

Sarasota County is fortunate to have "a forward-thinking administrative team," said county CIO Bob Hanson. County commissioners recognize technology's ability to increase service levels for constituents and staff productivity, he said.

Still, there were a few questions when Hanson suggested the county purchase the huge computing center. "Is this really a good deal?" elected officials wanted to know, and, "What will we do with this asset?" While many techies might recoil from such questions, Hanson said he understood officials' hesitation given budget concerns and the associated responsibility of stewarding scarce public funds.

Attempting to "sell" the data center purchase to citizens in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals -- from a company associated with those financial fiascoes no less -- also made county officials uneasy. In the end, however, buying the data center made the kind of fiscal sense no one could ignore. Hanson said that though commissioner questions slowed the acquisition process somewhat, it was never in danger of being completely derailed.

Best Buy
After purchasing the $12 million data center -- for just about $2 million -- the Sarasota IT team quickly positioned itself to offer services in four different areas.

oHosting: space, equipment and services around the operations of the physical space necessary to support a data center.
oApplication service provision: hosting applications services for budgeting, performance management, HR, Internet sites and the like.
oDisaster recovery and business continuity planning: hosting services on demand in the event of a natural or other disaster.
oRemote backup and data storage: utilization of network and robotic backup equipment and software technologies to provide protection of data assets.

The data center paid for itself within six months of acquisition, according to Hanson. Automated technology allowed Sarasota to reduce staffing by two complete shifts, yet operate the facility 24 hours a day, every day.

"The lights-out operation was really afforded to us by our data center because of the robotic tape backup system," Hanson said. "We no longer had to have staff running around getting tapes. That's all been automated."

Cutting round-the-clock workers at the data center freed personnel and funds for a new county 311/CRM center. Hanson credits the data center with allowing Sarasota to slash IT spending by 20 percent through staff reduction and hardware and software standardization. The county pushed its technology budget back to 2003 levels, he said.

And in an area where roadways are punctuated with brightly colored but ominous signs pointing the way to hurricane escape routes, the data center is, for the first time, providing the county with a recovery center for critical systems infrastructure.

"Anyone who has ever priced recovery services will understand the difficulty our county has faced in paying for such services," Hanson said.

Customer Base
As if the in-house benefits of owning a massive data center -- something akin to a single driver owning a fleet of hot rods -- aren't enough, Sarasota County is, in a sense, offering up its cool cars to other government motorists.

"Sarasota isn't trying to bleed anything away from the private sector," said Alan Rosenzweig, director of Leon County's Office of Management and Budget. "They just have something they've developed that they feel they can share with other jurisdictions, and maybe recoup some of the costs for their taxpayers while giving benefits to other regions' taxpayers too."

Rosenzweig should know. He was Sarasota's first customer when the county offered other jurisdictions the Internet-based budgeting program it developed.

A former Sarasota employee himself, Rosenzweig two years ago was in the market for a new automated budgeting system, but found costs prohibitive.

Leon County launched an RFP that yielded four submissions with upfront price tags ranging from $140,000 to $500,000, with maintenance contracts that added another $30,000 to $150,000 annually. Rosenzweig, who had a budget of $250,000 for the project, asked his county board to reject all bids and went back to the drawing board.

It was during a conversation with some Sarasota pals that Rosenzweig asked what that county was doing as far as budget automation.

"They said they had this package they developed and were using, and that I could get online and take a look at it," Rosenzweig said. "So I did."

Thus Leon County became Sarasota's first ASP customer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Budgeting Benefits
Rosenzweig and his staff worked with programmers in Sarasota to slightly tweak the GovMax budgeting program to meet Leon County's needs, negotiated a remarkably affordable maintenance contract at less than $50,000 a year, and hit the fiscal footpath running -- with absolutely no upfront costs.

Not simply a software purchase, Sarasota provides the secure environment -- via its data center -- through which Leon County accesses the Web-based application.

Rosenzweig said he was "a little paranoid" about completely abandoning their old spreadsheet-driven system without thoroughly testing the Sarasota system, but after a year of parallel usage, Leon County has entirely transitioned to the new program.

Workers access GovMax via the Internet, input information only once and print reports directly from the system.

"Our analysts now have time to do what analysts are supposed to do -- analyze -- because they're not spending time keypunching data," said Rosenzweig. "We actually get to use our resources appropriately."

Similarly Raoul Lavin, budget director for Tallahassee, Fla., said using Sarasota's solution saved the city upfront costs and continues to provide departmentwide efficiencies and budget savings.

"The cost to lease the budget software is inexpensive and significantly less than if we had purchased any other budget prep system," Lavin said. "The system has increased efficiencies in preparing the budget, as many of the calculations that were previously done on spreadsheets by each analyst are now done within the system."

Sarasota also signed Monroe County, Fla., as a customer, and is providing various hosting and old-fashioned Web site development for several nonprofit agencies in the area.

The Promise of Partnership
Sarasota's approach is unusual for government, according to Hanson, who spent 20 years in the private sector before joining the county.

"When I first came to the public sector, one thing that astounded me was that public service institutions weren't working together," said Hanson. "Here we were, all spending our limited funds on redundant services."

Hanson's desire to provide government with some advantages enjoyed in the commercial sector is not limited to hosting a budget application for various other jurisdictions.

Sarasota programmers are in the final stages of developing a simplified human resources system tailored to government needs.

"So often government marches down the path to a really powerful HR application when it really doesn't need it," Hanson said. "It's like hitting a gnat with a sledgehammer."

The Sarasota IT staff also is working on a plug-and-play Web site building kit.

"It's a content management system focused on government need," Hanson explained.

Based on Microsoft's .NET platform, the application is nearly ready to go. Hanson said programmers are now working to "enhance it so it can truly have plug-and-play capability."

"It's a very simple interface," he continued, "that will give small governments all the Web technology larger governments have."

Helping out the little guy is very much on Hanson's mind. Noting that Florida has nearly 5,000 jurisdictions with fewer than 5,000 residents each, Hanson said intergovernmental sharing can greatly benefit tiny governments and agencies whose tight budgets rarely allow for any lofty IT notions.

"Small governments simply can't afford the same technology that larger jurisdictions like Sarasota can afford," Hanson explained. "But they can afford to pay a small fee for a service."

Hanson also sees the county's data center eventually providing e-mail hosting services, and more backup and disaster recovery capabilities. He said breaking down artificial barriers between institutions benefits every government -- and subsequently, the entire nation.

Utilitarian Utility
But that vision depends on governments working together to bring the best in IT to all jurisdictions. It's an idea with which almost everyone in the public sector sphere seems to agree -- but which fewer actually have put into action.

"There are some things going on around the country," Hanson said, naming King County, Wash., and Virginia Beach, Va., as examples of intergovernmental collaboration. There may not be another jurisdiction attempting collaboration on the scale of Sarasota's data center design, but others certainly see Hanson's vision clearly.

"The beauty of working with other governments is that you're working with people who fully understand and appreciate the environment you're in," said Leon County's Rosenzweig. "They understand our terminology, they understand the time frame, they understand the constraints. That's very important."

That kind of positive reinforcement only serves to further Hanson's dogged pursuit of mutual governmental support.

In Hanson's ideal future, governments would live in an IT world facilitated by utility computing. He foresees a day when governments will band together to form an incredibly strong infrastructure -- something like today's electric or telephone companies. This infrastructure, he predicts, will leverage the best technology available and be made possible by pooled dollars.

"It's really an 'eat or be eaten' thing," said Hanson. "Create the public-sector computing utility before we become the customer of the private sector that takes even more taxpayer dollars."

It's not that Hanson has anything against the private sector -- he expects to call on its application development expertise from time to time -- or that he is trying to intrude on industry's competitive territory. Hanson simply sees a kind of IT self-actualization coming by way of intergovernmental collaboration.

"We're not trying to use our nonprofit status to do anything but help other nonprofit entities. We're not using our nonprofit capacity as a competitive advantage," Hanson explained. "This is really about governments collaborating together in a way that returns more to the community with the same amount of dollars."
Kris Middaugh Staff Writer