Implementing a technology program takes funding and manpower — items that often are in short supply in government agencies these days. But a group of local government IT directors in Oklahoma are stretching resources by working together, and the effort is paying dividends throughout the state and the U.S.

Formed six years ago, the Oklahoma Government Information Technology Association (OGITA) has developed a number of guidance documents for iPad and social media use that have been adopted by public entities nationwide. Approximately 400 city technology departments in 25 states now rely on OGITA’s policies and procedures.

OGITA is spearheaded by its president, Craige Baird, who also is the technology services director of Ponca City, Okla. The nonprofit group consists of 100 representatives and limits participation to two individuals per municipal organization. So whether big or small, all local governments are equally represented and can ask questions and get tips on technology matters they are troubleshooting.

In-person meetings occur monthly in central Oklahoma, and government agencies can join the organization for free. OGITA holds an annual conference and various small conferences where it invites vendors to discuss topics of interest to the members.

Baird says the meetings are helpful, but much of the discussion on technology issues occurs electronically. The group created a listserv so that questions and answers can be exchanged on the fly. OGITA also has a Dropbox account so members can easily share files and tools with one another.

The initial idea behind OGITA was to help member cities deploy internal computing networks more efficiently. Smaller local governments with little or no IT staff also got assistance from OGITA members in larger cities.

“We were able to help them and get their networks up, and improve and enhance their city and, in turn, they helped their citizens who helped economic development,” Baird said. “That is really where we started. It was just to help each other and not really gain anything, but just to improve government technology as a whole.”

iPad Expertise

The group’s goals expanded when Apple’s iPad tablet debuted in 2010. OGITA created a task force consisting of members from cities that had budgets to allow them to evaluate multiple tablet devices.

The group concluded that the iPad showed the most promise for use by public officials and set to work on writing a policy that would help government organizations use an iPad from the moment they removed it from the box.

The first incarnation of OGITA’s iPad Recommended Configurations document was published in 2011, about a year after the device hit the market. The document is now on version 5.1.

Topics covered in the policy include what types of cases and keyboards can be used with the device. The group also created a small set of applications for business users and another set of tools for IT support teams. Training sessions were developed for using the iPad and software tools developed by OGITA members. And the group crafted policies that spell out appropriate uses for the device.

Enid, Okla., was one of the first cities to implement an iPad program for local government officials in the state. Dana Watkins, IT director of the city, said he helped develop the apps and the configuration document — a tool used frequently by his team.

“We are always referencing that document when we want to know something about iPads,” Watkins said. “That is the biggest thing about this organization — when you get ready to do something, get out there and find out if somebody has already done it before you, so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Building Trust

But that sort of unity wasn’t always present among the IT departments of Oklahoma’s municipalities, according to Baird. Cities and towns often competed with one another. Multiple cities frequently tested the same product from the same vendor.

Forming OGITA helped build trust between local IT organizations, primarily through the establishment of task forces. Besides the iPad task force, OGITA has groups focusing on mobile technology, social media and application development. Each of them present their findings to the overall group, fostering a collaborative environment.

Baird says mayors, council members and city managers in Oklahoma have recognized the value of OGITA and strongly support the organization. “They realize that if they give us time to work as a partnership on these task teams, what they get in return is something much greater and faster than what they would probably have gotten with just their own staff to do all that research by themselves,” Baird said.

The organization will revise its iPad document whenever the Apple operating system is updated. In addition, OGITA published a social media policy in early 2012, which it updated last September.

Like the iPad materials, the social media document will be revised as new concerns arise. For instance, a new version of the social media policy will be released later this year because of expanding federal regulations that apply to public-sector use of platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and YouTube.

For Enid’s Watkins, products like these are useful. But he also values the personal connections fostered by OGITA’s monthly meetings.

“[There] are these informal chat sessions where we talk about what we are working on and how we solved problems,” Watkins said. “Those informal conversations that we have, in my opinion, are the biggest benefit I get from the organization.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.