February 16, 2009 By Tim Howell
A "Population: 1,205" sign from the year 2000 sits on the edge of Hutto, Texas -an Austin suburb that's now pushing a population of 17,000 and is expected to continue booming because of its strategic location that makes it both accessible and affordable. Since Hutto's conveniently located on State Highway 130, residents and businesses don't have to deal with Austin traffic, but are still less than 30 minutes from the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and only 25 minutes from downtown Austin. Small-town life in Hutto is a distant memory.
As is the case with most communities that experience rapid growth, demand has increased and resources are exhausted, which requires the city to change its business processes to support its newfound identity.
My experiences as Hutto's IT analyst offer only a glimpse into one area of this citywide transformation, but from my rather unique perspective, it's interesting to see firsthand how a city can evolve and accept change with the right leadership, planning and support.
In 2000, the city had a 10-person staff, and I'm sure IT wasn't even in the city's projections. Hutto recently hired its second full-time IT position and now supports 80 users, 12 servers and six locations. We support the city's phone system, networking equipment, servers, workstations, software, technology planning, Web site and some training and multimedia. In fiscal 2008, we had a $300,000 IT budget, but fiscal 2009 projections are about 24 percent less.
Growth means organizational change, and change is something I'm accustomed to because I'm a member of Generation Y - those who were born between 1980 and 1994. We're commonly called Millennials. I'm 23 years old. But fear not, because if keeping up with the needs and expectations of Generation Y is something your organization is frantic about, then perhaps I am a beacon of hope and a sign of light at the end of the tunnel.
With that said, my first impression of Hutto was that it was so small that if you blinked, you would miss it. But little did I know that this small town was on the brink of a technology transformation, and of all people, I would be the one leading it.
My first glimpse of Hutto's network was in 2005 when I was hired as a consultant. When the first full-time position became available in October 2006, I was selected to fill it. At that time, the city operated on a few servers and about 60 workstations, the majority of electronic data was decentralized and much critical information was stored on local hard drives. It was a scary situation for Hutto because of its rapid growth.
As of 2005, Hutto had already moved forward with technology initiatives that would greatly improve efficiency. The city was implementing an automated meter-reading system for water customers, handheld electronic ticket writers for police officers, and a supervisory control and data acquisition system for city-owned water towers. All of those projects were great additions, but there was still much work to be done to provide staff with the resources and information necessary to keep pace with the growth.
We used several factors to help choose our solutions and the route we would take to get there, but the "big three" were accessibility, scalability and centralization. Another important factor in the equation was cost, or in our case, future cost avoidance. With the amount of growth the city was experiencing and the demands on IT, the operations had to change to effectively manage everything. This led to our first initiative, the Citywide Thin-Client Project.
When this project was implemented in 2006, thin clients were relatively nonexistent in municipal governments, especially at the level we'd hoped to use them. Thin clients are trimmed-down computers that run a limited operating system and lack moving parts. The benefits were nearly endless - low cost, longer life expectancy, fewer failures, significantly less power consumption and centralized administration, to name a few.
Another part of the thin-client project was the implementation of Microsoft Terminal Services, which moves all applications off the workstation to the servers in the data room and provides anywhere/anytime access to the city's computer system and applications, while reducing the technology staff's workload. This gave mobile workers - such as police officers - full capabilities in the field, eliminating the need to return to the office to fill out reports and check e-mail. The project added four new servers, but hardware support on workstations has all but gone away. System maintenance has been significantly reduced. Also, since thin clients use less power, they can be classified as green technology, which leaves the door open for future remote work force initiatives. The thin-client project was a drastic transformation from the way things had been done before. The project received a Technology Excellence Award from the Texas Association of Governmental Information Technology Managers in April 2007.
During the project, all data was centralized and Hutto entered into an enterprise agreement with Microsoft. This agreement was a six-year contract that was prenegotiated by the state Department of Information Resources. This laid the groundwork for future projects.
Before I came onboard, Hutto had mostly worked with outside consultants and lacked a clearly defined technology vision. After the thin-client project, I spent the next 18 months fine-tuning the network. We formed a Technology Committee with representation from every city department and created a list of projects that needed to be done. When fiscal 2008 rolled around, we had developed a long list of items, including a phone system, networking equipment, additional terminal servers, a city Web site redesign, firewall and data connection between city facilities. All these projects have been completed, but the new phone system and the Web site redesign are particularly noteworthy.
Hutto's rapid growth had stretched the city's previous digital phone system to the limit, and support was an issue because the staff lacked the expertise to maintain the system. The phone-system project was led by two Technology Committee members: Diane Mehaffey and me. We regularly reported back to the committee on the project's status.
We demoed just about every vendor on the market and came up with a large list of products and features we were looking for. We wanted a system that was easy to use, expandable and could evolve as technology changed. The ShoreTel system we chose was a pure VoIP solution and had done a lot around unified communications, which was one of the areas where we saw much potential for improvement.
Digital phones gave us some call center functionality including queuing, work groups and reporting that we lacked previously, and the opportunity to improve customer service. All of the features are very easy to use, so even the less technical people can perform advanced functions. Scalability was one of our biggest concerns because of the city's rapid growth, and ShoreTel's system would scale to 10,000 users, which is far past our projections of less than 300.
Phone and in-person communications make up a large majority of interaction between the city and its citizens. But with the growth in broadband penetration and the demands for always-available access and service, we knew there was much Web presence improvement to be made.
In summer 2007, we launched a Web site redesign project that was the single largest project we had faced as a group and involved numerous stakeholders throughout the city and surrounding areas. We worked on this project from concept to budget, budget to vendor selection, and vendor selection to completion. We included a number of features such as frequently asked questions, a newsletter subscription service, an events calendar, job postings and news items with RSS feed capabilities.
But we wanted to do more; we wanted to get away from one-way communication and allow instant feedback and 24/7 availability. With a request tracker service we dubbed "Hutto Listens," Web site users can submit and track requests online and receive notification anytime an update was made to their request. Another unique feature that Hutto implemented was a fully functional small-screen device Web site, Mobile.HuttoTX.gov. Users could browse a portion of the Web site from smaller devices, and the information has been formatted to fit mobile devices' viewing needs. This is something that not many other cities are doing - especially smaller cities - and we saw it as another avenue to connect with our constituents.
As a technology decision-maker for Hutto, being a Millennial has influenced my choices, and I tend to question the phrase, "That's the way it has always been done." Over the past couple years, we have seen much improvement in anytime/anywhere access in the phone and computer systems for city employees and representatives. We have improved communications in all areas with our Web 2.0 and unified communications initiatives. We've decreased our impact on the environment through the use of thin clients and other green initiatives. The advancements have improved communication, increased department collaboration, streamlined business processes and improved overall operational efficiencies.
As we move forward, I see many great things ahead: open government; greater use of Web 2.0; and more collaboration among the city, county, state and feds. But projects require support from more than just the IT department. I think as a Millennial I have to seek input from other generations and really look at things from their perspective to get the necessary buy-in. The biggest differences that I see between the Millennials and other generations is that we tend to question the motives of authority and view work as just a job. Those differences should also affect how Hutto serves its citizens.
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