Denver Teaches City and County Agencies the True Cost of Technology Ownership

Standardizing the IT purchasing process helps agencies get the most for their money.

by / February 22, 2010 0
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Does the following scenario sound familiar? An IT vendor quotes a low price to an agency official for a technology solution. The official buys the product and then gets around to informing the IT staff, expecting that they will be delighted to deploy it. Later, this nontechnical official is stunned to learn that the vendor's price quote didn't reflect the actual cost of owning and operating what was purchased. Consequently the IT staff lacks the time, funds and workers for such an implementation. The IT department instantly is seen as hindering progress, while the official whose purchase caused the problem is seen as a victim.

Denver's consolidated city and county government struggled for years with this kind of problem until its Technology Services (TS) department created a process for helping agencies and the executives who oversee them understand the true cost and usefulness of technology purchases before they pull out their government-issued credit cards. TS assigns "account managers" to develop relationships with agencies so that the two entities understand each other's needs. TS and the city and county's joint budget office then coach agencies on purchase requests, which go before the IT Investment Council (ITIC) before the purchase can occur.

Molly Rauzi, CIO of Denver, said mutual understanding between IT and nontechnology officials flourished after this arrangement was established in 2007. Rogue purchases are in decline, and the blame game is far less common. Here's how Denver's process functions.

Photo: Molly Rauzi, CIO, Denver. Photo courtesy of Molly Rauzi.

Sucking Them Out of Their Vacuum

A primary cause of rogue IT purchasing is ignorance of how those purchases affect the IT support that's consequently available to other departments, according to Rauzi. TS illuminated this reality by forming ITIC, an IT decision-making body with representatives from each agency. In the past, Rauzi was stuck prioritizing projects herself, resulting in most agencies feeling disenfranchised. Once agency representatives took seats on ITIC, they saw firsthand how well their requests aligned with Denver's overarching goals and technology infrastructure. This helped when the council rejected a purchase request for which an agency had already secured its own grant money.

"People would come through and say, 'I already have money, why do I have to go through a justification process?'" Rauzi said. "The answer was we wanted to make sure we were doing things that met the city's strategy, not just things we had money to do."

By allowing agencies to drive decisions with consequences for that overarching strategy, Rauzi said officials make stronger efforts to solve their problems without additional purchases.

"While they're in that council, they're hearing the struggles of other agencies and it gives more empathy across the board," she said. "They feel more part of a team, and sometimes they have ideas to help [another] agency with a solution, which has been great."

The council's members also show more willingness to sacrifice, according to Edward Scholz, Denver's budget and management director, who sits on ITIC. "We had the human resources director actually pull one of his requests out because he recognized that other things were more important," he said.

Before a project reaches ITIC, it must be endorsed by an executive-level official in the agency requesting it. Oftentimes, an executive will do the dirty work of rejection for ITIC. "Some of them still aren't happy," Scholz added, "but at least they know that we have an objective process."

Exposing Hidden Costs Upfront

Making nontechnical agency officials less vulnerable to misleading sales pitches required a process for establishing the true cost of technology proposals.

TS began by dispatching employees to help agencies with assessment spreadsheets for the general cost of products they wanted to buy.

"It was basically an Excel spreadsheet that served as a checklist for any project," Rauzi said. "Do you have a project manager? Do you have business analysis that needs to take place? Do you need training for your business staff? Do you need training for the IT staff to support it?"

Rauzi is especially eager for agencies to create this spreadsheet when they seek grants for a new project. This way they know a realistic amount to request on their grant applications. "It could be attached to the grant application," she said.

After that, the agencies meet with a three-person team Scholz hired to help them flesh out their proposals before submitting them to ITIC. This team coaches agencies on formulating a business case. Together they examine whether the problem the technology is intended to fix could be solved with existing resources.

Pre-Emptive Customer Service

The proposal counseling drastically reduces the number of ill-fated ideas ITIC must consider. However, TS also has a strategy for avoiding some of the unnecessary counseling that happens for suggestions that are destined to fail. TS assigned account managers to develop relationships with agencies so they will understand each other better. Each account manager from TS meets with his or her assigned agency at least once a month -- and often more frequently than that, according to Ethan Wain, director of network and telecommunications for Denver. "The more we work with them, the more they include us earlier in the process," said Wain who is also the account manager for Denver's Police, Fire and Sheriff's departments.

The TS account manager is available to give informal advice on ideas being considered in agencies before they reach the formal counseling process. If an idea is stopped before it gets off the ground, that's time the counseling staff can spend coaching more promising projects.

The relationship also helps the agencies become savvier about each other's needs, according to Rauzi.

"For example, finance has their end-of-year closeout time where they need heightened support," she said. "Somebody else might have a big call season when every summer they have an influx of work with Parks and Recreation. This enables us to understand their business and help them put together these cases. They then understand us better as we're learning more about them."

Wain said these new relationships reduced instances of agencies buying technology and running it without the knowledge of TS officials. Government IT departments often become frustrated when outside agencies buy technology without permission, deploy and use it in secret, and then expect the IT departments to provide technical support when it malfunctions. "We used to have that problem quite a bit," Wain said. "Now it rarely happens."

Without cooperation from agencies in this area, TS would be stuck supporting hundreds of different applications, each catered to individual agencies. Now when agencies request special applications, ITIC tries to find a standard solution that might also serve other agencies.

TS originally planned to hire a special team of account managers, but the plan fell through because of 2009's economic problems. For now, six officials from the director level hold account managing duties in addition to their regular workload.

Rauzi said one of ITIC's primary benefits was putting tradeoff decisions into the laps of the business end-users, rather than IT officials. The process has been illuminating for end-users sitting on ITIC who must choose between extra spending on agencies' wish-list proposals or saying "no" for the sake of having more staff to prevent outages.

"The pain, in the end, of an outage is suffered by the business," Rauzi said. "It has just created a better partnership across the board."


Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.