Confronting aging IT systems
The dilemma over whether to upgrade or replace aging computer systems has plagued many government entities for years. But, with 2000 rapidly approaching, the question is no longer if they should replace them, but when. The dile mma can be particularly complicated for smaller municipalities with limited budgets.
If organizations choose to upgrade their current systems, administrators must dedicate considerable resources to the effort. However, governments with small staffs may not have the people to re-code proprietary software, and hiring outside consultants can be expensive.
Additionally, numerous questions regarding the current equipment must be answered. Is the hardware Y2K-compliant?
If the software is non-compliant, can it be fixed within a reasonable timeframe at a reasonable cost? Will it support software changes? Will replacement parts be available, and, if so, will all the components be compatible?
In most cases, replacing a system is less costly than upgrading it. That option is particularly attractive to many smaller communities where it is impossible to update antiquated software. Frequently, the employees who developed the software have moved to other jobs. Thus, replacing the system might be the only solution.
Thomasville, Ga., exemplifies how a small city can successfully implement new IT devices, stay within budget and improve city operations. City officials recognized their IT system’s inefficiencies, including two incompatible platforms, outdated business software and no vendor support.
Since July 1994, the city has steadily replaced hardware and software. The activity culminated last December, when the city replaced major components. By installing a new system, Thomasville was able to consolidate its general government operation and automate daily business processes, mainly through online data access. The automation increased employee productivity and responsiveness to requests from citizens, who can easily pay property taxes, business license fees or other assessments.
“Now citizens go to one window to make payments because all the required information is accessible from a single hardware platform,” says Thomasville City Manager Tom Berry.
City employees are now able to transfer data electronically without searching through paper files. Having access to online data eliminates duplicate entries and provides features like automatic deposit, which streamlines the payroll process and helps reduce operating costs.
Even if an organization can afford to update a system, it may find that replacement is more cost-effective. For example, the Montebello Unified School District in Los Angeles County, one of the larger school districts in southern California, recently chose to replace rather than update its IT system. The district was struggling with an outdated financial and human resources system, including hardware that could not support the latest Windows technology and data processing software. Montebello began implementing the new system in August 1998, and installation is scheduled for completion in July.
“For the first time ever, all of our schools’ sites will do their own purchasing requisitions,” says Deb Villagran, financial systems accountant. “We also want to pull away from mainframe technology and have more reporting done at the workstations.”
As Thomasville and the Montebello Unified School District demonstrate, understanding the limitations of proprietary software aids in choosing to upgrade or replace IT systems. Despite limited funding in smaller areas, technology decisions are crucial to public sector success.