From Silos to Success

Nevada County implemented an ambitious program to establish a countywide IT enterprise.

by / May 6, 2001
As Forrester Research recently put it, "The natural tendency for different departments within a government agency to be highly territorial is the single biggest impediment to progress on any e-government initiative."

Such was the case in Nevada County, Calif., before they hired a new CIO. The county, located between Sacramento, Calif., and Reno, Nev., has 95,000 residents and, until recently, was not known for setting the pace when it came to technology.

"Weve had a somewhat negative image statewide over the past decade," said Ted Gaebler, chief administration officer (CAO) of Nevada County. He recounts problems due to a lack of IT standardization, no real IT policy, no technology refresh program, no pooling of funds or resources, a lack of collaboration and a poor Information Systems Department image.

But things began to change when the county hired Stephen Monaghan as CIO. Fresh out of the private sector, Monaghan quickly observed problems that those around him had grown accustomed to -- a county held back by IT silos and an internal culture that didnt foster collaboration between departments.

"Due to understaffing and no funding for upgrades or improvements, the IS department was literally running from one fire to another," said Monaghan. "Staff worked long hours, performed heroic feats, yet failed to satisfy the client base."

Monaghans first task was to update the countys three-year plan for automation. But how could the county provide the same services as larger counties with a fraction of the resources? Nevada Countys annual IT budget was only $3.2 million and its IT staff numbered 30. Monaghan decided to look outside the IS department for a new IT governance model.

"We looked for organizations that had accomplished the cultural shift from silos to an enterprise," he continued.

He received more than 50 plans from county and city IT departments courtesy of Gaebler. Clark County, Nev., for instance, had earlier commissioned a plan from KPMG. The consulting group recommended an IT governance model that caught Monaghans attention. He contacted Clark County.

"We received overwhelming support, information, insight and encouragement from Clark County, especially Tom War in the CIO office," said Monaghan. War explained that Clark County was three years into the transformation process and had learned several important lessons since writing the original plan. The most significant lesson prompted the county to directly connect all countywide IT investments, budget and funding into one governance model. This made the process more real and encouraged active participation from all departments. Further, only participating departments could receive funding for new IT projects. Benefiting from these lessons, Nevada County took one month to establish the IT framework that Clark County spent more than a year implementing.

In Monaghans experience, getting people to understand that an organization must have standards, share resources, centralize operations and share IT staff is not the challenge. Rather, gaining agreement on collective changes poses the biggest hurdle and is largely dependent on whether individual needs can be met. He believes this can only be achieved if employees have an open, safe, collaborative forum to solve IT issues. Without an approach that solves group and individual requirements, an IT principal ends up spreading limited resources over too many projects and spending all his or her time fighting political battles. "To get buy-in from all players, fragmented IT departments must give up the control and power to the business directors -- not an easy thing for your traditional IT director to do," he said.

Nevada Countys Model

Nevada Countys IT governance model has a three-tier structure with the Information Systems Steering Board (ISSB) occupying the highest level. This body is responsible for the establishment and oversight of the overall information technology investment program, and it is sponsored by the CAO and chaired by his deputy. The other members of this board are the CIO and the chairpersons of each community of interest (COI).

The second tier is made up of seven COIs, each a virtual organization of departments that have common core processes and IT concerns. The COIs review, prioritize, fund and monitor all IT capital projects with the purpose of ensuring that information technology investments fit as closely as possible within the "citizens view" of the organization. The seven communities of interest are: Community and Social Programs, Development and Environmental Management, Internal Services, Justice, Public Safety, Facilities Management and the Maintenance and Enterprise Information Management Team.

The third tier consists of the business-solution teams (BST). These are ad hoc groups of technical and management staff formed by the ISSB or a COI to address specific technical needs. A BST gives functional oversight to projects. Each team breaks a project down into its specific steps, makes schedules, allocates resources and corrects problems encountered while that project is being realized. One BST was formed by the Development and Environmental Management COI to review the Community Development Agencys request for a new housing permit system.

As a result of implementing this organizational pattern, Nevada County has achieved a high degree of cooperation throughout the enterprise without sacrificing project management strengths.

Free IT Resources

Although Nevada Countys restructuring of its IT system was primarily due to the communication and cooperation fostered among its leaders, a series of no-cost solutions also played a significant role. While researching Y2K, for example, they discovered Californias "County Y2K Cookbook," a methodology and template to follow in preparing for Y2K. Nevada County also discovered that the lead consultant on that project happened to be a local resident who, when contacted, volunteered many hours of time to consult, hold meetings and review reports.

Another helpful program was the Sheriffs Departments implementation of a computer aided dispatch and records management system that the vendor provided at no cost in return for beta-testing feedback. Monaghan realizes the risks involved with beta software, but feels its a good tradeoff when you consider the receipt of a "free" million-dollar system.

Further, the county purchased three 3Com NBX 100 voice-over IP-based phone systems, the newest technology for computer telephony. "We very much like this technology and have had a good experience working with 3Com and our integrator," said Monaghan. "This relationship led us to a beta-site engagement with 3Com on its new enterprise-class NBX 750 unit."

Having already implemented some of 3Coms smaller units, the county felt comfortable moving ahead to replace its antiquated main PBXs. Taking advantage of the 3Com beta program, the production system will go live in only one year instead of the typical three- to four-year timeline. This amounts to a $150,000 value between equipment and consulting services, which were provided at no charge to the county.

Chance also played a part in Nevada Countys ability to implement a sophisticated county enterprise system without budget. When the county organized a citizens committee to review its strategic plan and provide feedback, it landed two rich resources. One committee member turned out to be the CIO from neighboring Placer County, who happened to live in Nevada County. Another member is a retired CIO from MCI and AAA, and an expert in document imaging. As well as implementing large systems for Alaska, AAA and other organizations, he has written several books on the topic. Now, he is providing the county with free consulting on the subject and is assisting in the development of a countywide imaging methodology.

"There are great assets in our local retired community, and many agencies could benefit by tapping into this resource," said Monaghan.

More good fortune arrived for the county from the public and private sectors.

IBM stepped forward, offering help on a pilot project to develop online Web-based analytical data processing, a data warehouse, a metadata catalog and expanded GIS abilities.

California is piloting a project for the Human Services Internet Portal program in Nevada County.

The California State Association of Counties has involved Nevada County in a pilot project to develop a statewide county videoconferencing program and provided the county with a free videoconferencing system and data circuits.

Staying on Top

With so many duties to handle, Monaghan found it essential to focus on core strategic and tactical issues. Rather than involving himself with each IT employee and problem, he spent the majority of his time meeting with department heads, finding out what they were doing, what issues and concerns they had, and then bringing them together to discuss these concerns as a community of interest.

In doing so, Monaghan identified common threads that ran across departmental lines and service offerings, pointing out where and how the department heads could collaborate.

"I played more of a facilitator and consultant role," he said. "We have a great group of people here and I cant take the credit for what has happened. Everyone had the willingness to participate and cooperate. I think Ted [Gaebler]s new influence, in particular, gave an atmosphere of hope and change across the whole organization. People believed that we were going to accomplish something, and we did."
Drew Robb Contributing Writer