Managing the solid waste stream in a state with 33 million residents is no simple task. But add to it a mandate requiring that 50 percent of California's waste stream be diverted away from landfills by the year 2000, and the job becomes even more difficult.
The California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) -- one of six agencies under the California Environmental Protection Agency -- is also charged with developing waste reduction programs, providing public education and outreach, fostering market development for recyclable materials, regulating waste management facilities and cleaning up abandoned and illegal dump sites.
Like many large organizations, CIWMB was dealing with some very serious information management issues. Many times, information failed to arrive at its proper destination at the right time or was lost along the way. "Our warehouse/disaster recovery building holds some instrumentation and calibration equipment we use to take scientific samples of air and water near landfills," said Gary Arstein-Kerslake, chief of CIWMB Information Management Branch. "It was important that that information -- which is used for various things by various areas of the board -- was available easily and quickly. In addition, we needed to share a lot of information with the staff in Southern California."
The new mandate didn't make things any easier.
Nevertheless, the staff at CIWMB knew they could handle their heavy load provided they focus the organization in the right direction, apply the right technologies and maintain a positive attitude.
"We have a lot of different tasks to accomplish and a wide variety of information to exchange within our agency," said Arstein-Kerslake. "What we needed were tools that would allow our staff to do their jobs and do them well."
With that in mind, the Information Management Branch, using equipment, software and support from Microsoft, set out to install a full-featured, computerized work environment onto the desktops of everyone in the organization.
Today, CIWMB staff can look at another staff member's calendar to schedule meetings, send e-mail to anyone in the organization, use the Internet, and view and post information to the organization's intranet -- called BoardNet.
"Essentially, the technology improves efficiencies by allowing our staff to share critical information easily," said Arstein-Kerslake. "It also provides for better coordination of tasks among staff and helps keep the board focused on similar goals."
CIWMB and Microsoft connected every office and building with a local area network. Staff at any of the remote locations can seamlessly dial in to the CIWMB Web site, where they are able to run Microsoft Office and Outlook/ Exchange, access or deliver information, read e-mail and peruse BoardNet.
Remote access capabilities also came in handy when CIWMB recently decided to consolidate three southern California offices into one. "Some of the staff in Southern California went from a half-hour commute to a much longer commute, and many decided they'd rather telecommute," said Doug Ralston, manager of Applications Services in the Information Management Branch. "With our new structure in place, 25 percent of our organization now has the capability to work remotely, and it's really facilitated productivity."
In the near future, CIWMB envisions LAN-based videoconferencing to further facilitate working relations with the southern California office.
Aside from giving all CIWMB staff the ability to use the Internet and intranet, Arstein-Kerslake and Ralston also wanted them to share some of the related responsibilities. "When it came time for us to determine how we were going to handle the intranet from a program/administrative point of view, we knew that the magic ingredient was to put as much capability -- and responsibility -- as possible in the hands of the users," said Ralston. "What we wanted was a suite of tools that enabled us to provide the basic support but got out of the way when it came to producing the project and managing the information."
To solve the problem, CIWMB employed Microsoft Office, which essentially allows every desktop user to act as a Web author. "We could see it wasn't going to be cost-effective to teach every staff member HTML," said Arstein-Kerslake. "We decided the direction we wanted to go would be a GUI (graphical user interface)-based, what-you-see-is-what-you-get type graphic word processing and editing tool."
With the ability to act as Web authors from their desktops, staff at CIWMB can now post relevant information to BoardNet or the Internet themselves. "Not only does it empower the users, but it takes us out of the loop and makes each program area responsible for the content," said Arstein-Kerslake. "So if something hasn't been updated for six months, the Information Management Branch doesn't have to handle the complaint. Instead, it goes straight to the program area that's responsible. That allows us to work on things critical to our own area."
To make this system work, the Information Management Branch meets with each person responsible for posting information about their area to establish directory structures and make sure the staff member is comfortable with the technology they'll be using. Once each staff member is set up, it's up to them to keep their area of the site updated.
CIWMB's external Web site is handled much the same way, although the information is first submitted to the Public Affairs Department to make sure the information is accurate and complete before being posted. "Among state organizations, we're probably unique in the extent to which we've incorporated Web-based development, Web-based access and Internet abilities," said Ralston.
According to Arstein-Kerslake, a key to the Information Management Branch's ability to manage and support their IT environment stems from the recognition and support they've received from upper management. "Many organizations have lots of disparate types of systems scattered all over the place. That may be a function of their size, but it's also a management decision to let specific business groups develop their own IT processes. When that happens, you start to have compatibility issues. We don't have that here and I think one of the reasons is because our board and management have seen the value in becoming standardized."
Standardization has been especially critical for CIWMB, where many different programs stretch across multiple divisions. "For example, there are regulations being adopted in one of our divisions for how to deal with compost," said Ralston. "Meanwhile, another division is trying to support people who are getting into the composting business. Then over in our planning session, they're interested in finding out how much compost is being diverted as part of the effort to reduce the material going into landfills. So you have these three different organizations all dealing with some aspect of compost, and they need to share information. That's facilitated by having standard platforms, processes and software across those divisions. If there were distributed processes in all three divisions, it would be very difficult to share data."
Information Is A Tool
Arstein-Kerslake and Ralston attribute part of their success in improving the flow of information within CIWMB to their belief that information is a resource as valuable as any other piece of equipment.
"Good data makes good decisions," said Ralston. "We've taken the tack that it's our responsibility to provide staff with the tools they need in order to do their job well. But also, we want to show them how valuable the data they develop through those tools can be in the ongoing decision-making process. So the approach we take is not only one of education but also one of support."
January Table of Contents
Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.