GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/Working together to create applications
Local government agencies often see the potential that new computer applications have for improving their business processes, but they risk losing a large amount of public money if the applications do not deliver on their promises. Agencies working alone on IT issues might be reluctant to move forward with projects because of the high risks, but some find that working with other agencies can mitigate the risks and help ensure successful IT investments.
When local governments decide to invest in new software to help automate business processes, they traditionally are locked into three options: They can buy packaged software, build the applications on their own or outsource the software development to an IT consultant.
Each option has a potential downside. For example, the process of building applications — either in-house or with an IT consultant — can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. Packaged software may seem less expensive, but “out of the box” typically means little, if any, customization, and costs to customize the software can add up quickly. Compounding those difficulties, local governments — especially small ones — may have requirements for custom software features that do not top a software vendor’s priority list.
Alternatively, groups of city or county government agencies that perform the same functions can work together to share technical resources and development costs. Collaborative development can save a significant amount of money and can help smaller cities and counties access technology that only large governments can afford to purchase or develop independently.
To begin working collaboratively, local government agency representatives must articulate their needs and priorities and agree on a vision for the finished product. In addition, IT experts should be involved in the application development process to gather information about each agency’s technical requirements and specifications. The group needs a leader who can drive the project, set and manage expectations, and capitalize on the talents and capabilities of each group member. The leader can be a single city or county, a private IT services organization or an established local government association.
The process can involve as few or as many government agencies as are willing to participate. For example, eight counties in North Carolina recently collaborated to develop a tax system that would satisfy all their needs and could be used by the rest of the counties in the state.
The idea came from the Wake County Revenue Department, which, in 1997, began working with a consultant to create a tax system that integrates listing, appraisal, billing and collection of real and personal property taxes. Pleased with the progress of the development effort, Wake County asked the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners to assist in making the system available to other counties.
The association solicited participants for a pilot program that would determine whether the application could be used by every county in the state. Bertie, Buncombe, Cabarrus, Catawba, Johnston, Madison, New Hanover and Wayne counties participated in the pilot and suggested changes to accommodate their organizations.
The consultant is incorporating the group’s suggestions into the product. Once the revisions are complete early next year, all counties in the state will be able to use the application.
Counties will pay only implementation costs and will contribute their ideas and best practices to the rest of the group so the product can continue to improve. The collaboration process will allow participating counties to access affordable technology to improve their services to residents.
The author is director of e-government solutions for Durham, N.C.-based Intelligent Information Systems.