Getting a Public Education

Cities are offering employees a chance to learn in education technology centers.

by / May 31, 1999
Local jurisdictions have been dealing with increased demands and shrinking budgets for years. Providing just essential services is considered substandard in jurisdictions that pride themselves on quality-of-life considerations. In their eyes, maintaining the status quo just won't do anymore.

The same could be said for public-sector employees. A secretary is no longer just a secretary, and a finance clerk is no longer just a finance clerk. Government workers could become more valued employees with proper training. After all, the secretary skilled in word processing can accomplish much more with a computer than with an electric typewriter. And the finance clerk skilled in Excel can work more efficiently than with a solar-powered calculator.

Some cities have picked up on this idea and have created technology education centers for their valued commodities.

Opportunities in Orlando

Orlando, Fla., has roughly 190,000 residents, a number that doubles and even triples during the height of the tourist season, thanks mostly to great weather and theme parks. Accommodating the influx of visitors while providing services to residents is no easy task for the 3,000 city employees. But it's getting easier with the help of technology.

The city's technology center is open to all city employees, including part-time workers and volunteers. Five people are on staff, and training is even held for public safety folks outside standard business hours.

"The training motto is, 'working smarter not harder.' We all believe it and practice it," said Nancy Rochette, technology center manager.

Most of the classes are held in four-hour blocks, Rochette said, because it is difficult for people to comprehend training crammed into eight straight hours, and inconvenient or impossible to take a full day off. The people who need training the most are the ones who don't have the time, she said.

But those who commit to a technology education can get the equivalent of a degree, with classes and sessions including Microsoft's Windows 95, Word, Excel, Access and PowerPoint; the Internet; intranets; and FrontPage 97, Web-design software.

The center also has classes that employees take at their desks through the city's intranet. Targeted training, including "brown bag" sessions during lunch, is emphasized because it gives employees training when they need it, according to Frank Hagy, the city's director of technology management, whose department oversees the training.

"In the competitive world, we keep trying to reduce staff, so [because of the increasing workload] we don't have enough time for training," Hagy said. "Targeted training, the brown bag sessions, etc., is an answer to this."

And the students have responded. A recent quarter saw 245 employees attend 83 classes, not to mention those working from their desks. On a scale of one to six -- one being the best -- the approval rating from employees has been an impressive 1.33, Rochette said.

Matriculating in Mobile

The rating system for the technology learning center in Mobile, Ala., is equally impressive, consistently averaging about four of a possible five. For the 2,200 employees serving a city of 225,000 residents, successful use of technology brings feelings of responsibility and ownership.

"We tell them constantly that our technology will go as you drive it. We are going to deliver the tools that you need to deliver information anytime, anyplace, anywhere," said Chris Lee, the city's executive director of administrative services. "There has been an almost constant demand for training from the workforce."

The demands include classes on Microsoft Office Suite, management training courses for supervisors, specialized training for programmers, specialized training for GIS analysts and technicians on ArcInfo software from ESRI, and training for end users and managers of the Oracle financial management system.

The center fits into the city's strategic technology plan, which states that all applications will be for easy access for Web-based transactions, and that there is focused application development on training in computer and PC environment. Just as important for city operations is that employees can function when stand-alone systems are eliminated by September, when the city will have completed its move to an open PC environment with a three-tiered client-server operation.

That shouldn't be a problem, since Mobile officials have linked the training to an employee development program. Any employee who earns 100 points, a significant portion of the points must be gained through training and education, earns a 5 percent wage increase. Getting 100 points takes about three years, Lee said, but including classes grandfathered in, 89 employees have already qualified.

Among the 89 is Patricia Aldrich, the city's deputy comptroller, who scored the 100 points without taking the classes but decided an education in technology was too good to pass up. "The Excel spreadsheet has been invaluable to me in putting together the city's budget," Aldrich said. "I think our productivity has increased because it's helped me do my job better."

The enthusiasm employees have shown is literally paying dividends to the city. According to a 1994 municipal yearbook produced by the National League of Cities, An average city Mobile's size spends about $10 million per year on technology. Mobile has been able to do the same for about $6 million.

"We don't believe you have to throw money at the problem," Lee said. "We're going to do it very methodically."

National Need

Hagy said a center focused on technology training needs to catch on, not only among his co-workers in Orlando, but among all public-sector employees nationwide. "I don't believe that we have begun to use the power of what we have sitting on our desktops, mostly because we are not educated enough in what the software and hardware can do for us," he said.