Five Tips for Outsourcing or Sharing IT Resources/Photo by iStockphoto Five Tips for Outsourcing or Sharing IT Resources Photo by iStockphoto

they need to do the jobs they need to do," said Willenbring. "The technology's the easy part. The people are the difficult part."

On the shared services side, a government should look at its business processes before deciding to consolidate, according to David Wilson, director of Accenture's Health and Public Service Finance and Administration industry group.

"If you have a small organization -- let's say it's a small city or county, and it might have lots of departments -- if its transaction volume is quite low, it probably isn't going to get the benefits of moving to a shared services operating model. Typically the benefits come from high volume where you can leverage efficiencies and economies of scale," Wilson said. However, if an organization handles many back-office processes, perhaps sharing is more sensible.

Deciding to scrutinize the potential need for shared services is one thing, but it's another challenge altogether to carve out time and attention to do so. Sometimes technologists are busy managing the same systems and tasks that they'd like to streamline. Willenbring remembers Minneapolis had some serious issues before consolidating and outsourcing.

"We were so focused on the break-fix -- keeping the servers up, dealing with the desk-side support. We just weren't able to help the city move forward from a technology perspective because 80 percent of our time was consumed with keeping the existing environment operational," she said. "We didn't have 24/7 support for anything -- no service desk, no data center support. Essentially we were just drowning."

2. Measure Total Cost of Ownership

While considering how well an IT organization handles technology functions in-house, measure the total cost of ownership for operating hardware, software and services. These costs sometimes aren't closely tracked by government agencies, but they're critical to identifying what advantages would come from an outsourced solution.

"Most institutions really don't understand the cost of their technology and the cost of many services that they provide," said Bob Hanson, CIO of Sarasota County, Fla. and Sarasota County School District. This lack of clarity might also apply to overall personnel costs. "They don't understand what the hourly cost of an employee is when you add labor, overhead, benefits, office space and all the array of things," he said.

If a government knows what it's spending on people and technology, it will see what it can gain from outsourcing or sharing. "Otherwise, you're never really going to get a valid comparison, and you're either going to be subject to being gamed by someone or an opinion winning out over fact," Hanson said.

Sarasota has a communitywide fiber network that's shared by the county, the school district and the cities of Sarasota and North Port. All users share the costs of operating the infrastructure. Sarasota County also designed a Web-based application for public agencies called GovMax that integrates strategic and business planning, performance management and budgeting functions. Agencies use GovMax to get a firmer grip on the efficiency and performance of in-house processes and their results.

3. Carefully Craft the Contract

In most cases, the relationship between a service provider and the service user comes down to a service-level agreement (SLA). It's an all-important document that formally defines the service and how it will be delivered. If SLAs are not carefully crafted, problems could trip up an organization.

Minneapolis hit an SLA-related snag with Unisys after agreeing to the initial contract in 2002. As Willenbring saw it, the agreement didn't adequately define some service-desk protocols. The wording specified that the average answering time would be less than 45 seconds for service desk personnel, but that specification didn't guarantee timeliness. If numerous callers waited for several minutes but others waited only seconds, that could satisfy the 45-second average even though many people waited too long for assistance.

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  |  GT Staff Writer

By day, Hilton Collins is a staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines who covers sustainability, cybersecurity and disaster management issues. By night, he’s a sci-fi/fantasy fanatic, and if he had to choose between comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm. He can be reached at hcollins@govtech.com and on @hiltoncollins on Twitter.