Harris County CIO Steve Jennings

In 2000, Harris County, Texas, began a 10-year thrust to build true enterprise governance in the nation's third largest county, which covers 1,744 square miles, and serves more than three million people. County CIO Steve Jennings -- who is responsible for the county's data processing, communications and networking, as well as a regional public-safety communications system that serves 240 federal, state and local government agencies -- spoke today on the enterprise view to a Center for Digital Government teleconference.

Jennings said that the county, like many in the country, was distributed in some areas, centralized in others, with departments carrying a lot of "technology baggage." Then, in 2000, it created its "2010" strategy, providing a forum with a time frame sufficiently long so that departments could engage in non-threatening discussions about change.

The approach, said Jennings, was to enable officials to use evolving technology and work together on an enterprise approach toward specific objectives. The forum would look at such things as customer service, organizational structure and a new method of budgeting to cost out enterprise systems. It would look with new eyes at "what services you provide, and how you provide them." An E-Business Results Team (EBRT) would look at the cost of providing a service, and its effectiveness and value to the customer. The County Commission approved the plan and the wheels began turning.

Challenges

The county IT establishment had many challenges and complexities to deal with. It handles public-safety communications for nine counties, serves as an ISP, telecommunications company, training and education center, support center for internal and external customers, and an application solutions and business continuity provider, among others.

Jennings said that in most county IT operations 70 percent of the budget is running existing capability with only 30 percent for new development. "What we want from an enterprise approach," he explained, "is to reduce redundancy and islands of technology, reach an additional 15 percent new capabilities, and decrease our existing maintenance to the 55 percent range."

"Enterprise Core" Areas

The 20-10 Advisory Board, said Jennings, is a clearinghouse for seven major areas defined as the "enterprise core." They are:

  • Document management and imaging
  • GIS. The county has 190 different GIS applications, he said, and has standardized on ESRI. Jennings says GIS will be a major player in the county's enterprise strategy.
  • Human Resources.
  • Finance including ERP, purchasing and HR modules
  • Justice. Justice system components will be integrated, with a unique SPIN (special person identification number) and using the Web whenever possible. "We will try to move the information, not the person," said Jennings, citing past practice of walking from the District Clerk's Office to the Courthouse carrying bundles of files. He said the plan was to make everything digital with imaging to provide timely decisions and reporting. The new system will provide management reports increasingly mandated from state and federal governments, and will handle the four million transactions per day in both civil and criminal cases. Jennings said the county is looking at the Kansas Regional Justice Information Centers approach.
  • Security. To strengthen an enterprise approach to security, new technologies are being rolled out, and special attention is placed on training and education of staff. The county is also sharing its ideas with the Texas Association of Counties.
  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is being used to re-structure the county's Web site, involving all departments in a standardized Web front end that will go live in February or March.
Each of the seven areas has an independent evaluation team, and the total group meets quarterly.

"We are very pleased in our approach," said Jennings. "Without 2010 in place, we would have no clear vision of directing IT investment. This is our approach to get consensus building to push our costing, and our acquisition on to an enterprise approach."

Responding to questions that followed, Jennings said that he and his staff have an open door policy for vendors, but that he is looking for enterprise solutions rather than products. He mentioned specifically enterprise document management and GIS.

Members of the Center for Digital Government can access the complete transcript online. For more information, contact Leesa Kelly at 916.932.1406.

Wayne Hanson  |  Editor