Computerizing government: The next generation
It wasn’t quite love at first byte, but after growing more comfortable with computers, Americans are now using government Web sites to make transactions that once involved writing checks or visiting a municipal building. In fact, more than 60 percent of Internet users are interested in using “e-government” services for activities such as responding to a jury summons, renewing a driver’s license and obtaining a birth certificate, according to a recent study by the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Excellence in Government. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said that the Internet will have a positive effect on government operations over the next decade.
Facing their constituents’ demands for more access to services, a greater need for security and the necessity to become more efficient, local governments are responding. Cities and counties are replacing their old “legacy systems” with the next generation of information technology (IT). The new systems allow municipal departments to communicate with each other internally and interact with external customers more efficiently.
In this era of homeland security, upgraded IT systems also allow various emergency responder groups to communicate quickly and retrieve important information in times of crisis. The Council for Excellence in Government poll stated that half of all Americans believe that governments should be able to search databases for information that would help to track and capture terrorists.
Communication between residents and local government agencies has benefited from the upgrades as well. In Chicago, for example, a relatively new 311 system — used by residents to report non-emergency problems such as potholes — has led to increased government efficiency and customer satisfaction. In addition to replacing an outdated computer system, the 311 program eliminated several smaller call centers, making it simpler for residents to use. During a period of recent flooding, 911 calls were down by a third because people called 311 instead, freeing up the emergency line.
But implementing such changes is often a long, arduous process. The most successful upgrades occur when upper management is supportive, adequate training is provided and a long-term plan for maintenance is implemented. A few local governments have set the standard.
A methodical approach
Although most local governments are experiencing greater demand for e-government services, that is especially true in cities with explosive growth. One of those cities is Las Vegas, whose population has grown from about 197,000 in 1985 to about 535,000 today.
The demands of a ballooning population led officials to consider modernizing the city’s computer systems, while building a flexible framework to allow for future growth. Las Vegas had operated on an old mainframe system, with many departments unable to exchange electronic data or leverage common information sources.
Officials also wanted residents to have Web and phone access to city services. In the last five years, the city has implemented a system, provided by Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle, to handle financial requests from its residents. Another system from Sacramento, Calif.-based Hansen Information Technologies allows people to book facilities or sign up for classes without visiting City Hall.
“The city manager had a vision that systems had three purposes,” says Joseph Marcella, Las Vegas’ director of information technologies and chief information officer. “One was standard operations — keeping the wheels on the wagon. The second opportunity was to service the citizens, and the last thing was that…it was very important to have information. But you can’t do that unless there are coordinated efforts among departments.”
It was important to the city that the IT system be managed by a central department, but that the actual business applications were operated by the various departments. “Ours was an enterprise approach, [based on] a single database, because integration was extremely important,” Marcella says.
Implementation is key, says Pat Dues, project officer and manager of enterprise resource planning in the city manager’s office. With buy-in from senior management, the city relies on “team captains” from various departments to oversee the implementation of the new IT systems. “We do a train-the-trainer program, so our own people can take over the training,” Dues says. “We only train on what [employees] absolutely need to know to do their job. We worry about additional training later.”
That systematic approach is echoed in how new IT functions are created and conveyed to the public. The city does “quiet roll-outs” so that employees are not deluged with residents’ questions, should any bugs remain in the system. As Dues explains, “We’re very fortunate that we don’t have senior management breathing down our necks and saying, ‘Why isn’t this rolled out?’”
Already, the city has benefited by having a wealth of information in a single place. For instance, the city has a property-based database that uses geographic information system (GIS) technology. Every property, street, fire hydrant and similar elements are in the system, which allows various functions — from emergency response to permitting and land development — to work off common information.
“If we get a work order that says you have to go to 221 Mojave, we can click a button and see where it’s located, including manhole covers, streetlights, fire hydrants and so on,” Dues says.
Sweeping stovepipes away
Eliminating disjointed, uncommunicative computer systems — often housed in departments that have been “stovepiped” or “siloed” — is a common motivation for upgrading IT systems, whether the government is as large as Las Vegas or as small as California’s Tuolumne County.
Until recently, Tuolumne County operated primarily on a mini-mainframe that handled only payroll and finance. By 1998, the county used hundreds of personal computers, but most were single units or hooked up to a handful of local-area networks within individual buildings. When Y2K — and all its perceived problems — were looming, the county knew it had to upgrade.
“With Y2K coming, that put us into an immediate position where we needed to work fast, but we needed a road map,” says Craig Pedro, assistant county administrator. “We had to go beyond this patchwork of local area networks. We had to go out and build a WAN, a wide area network, that tied all that together.”
The county also switched to a voice over Internet protocol phone system, in which both voice communication and data are transmitted over common lines. Other applications were standardized using Microsoft software.
“We wanted to establish as our standard those hardware and software systems that were on the leading edge, but not on the bleeding edge,” Pedro says. “We wanted to be with someone who had a strong presence on the market, but we did not want to make an investment in companies with a lot of promises but [that] had not developed their products.”
The county recognized that reaching out electronically to customers also meant increasingly using outside vendors. “What we realized is that we have to rely a lot more on outside resources that are technical in nature,” says Gregg Jacob, Tuolumne County’s information systems and services manager. “Our contacts with the outside world are many times what they were before we rolled this technology out.”
Training is crucial when rolling out a new IT system, Pedro says. Predictably, older employees are less comfortable working in an online world, but that does not mean that younger employees are always easier to train. Often, they come to the workplace with different experiences of working with technology and different expectations.
“What we see now both internally and with our constituents is that they want the ‘Amazon.com’ experience with government,” Jacob says. “We used to have a print shop that would be printing up reports at midnight. That doesn’t happen anymore. We don’t have a print shop because that sort of functionality is at the employees’ fingertips. The technology is all based on what is used on the Internet. People’s training at home is starting to be beneficial.”
Yet, like Las Vegas, Tuolumne County does not want to move too quickly. The county has no Web site, preferring to develop a site with full, interactive functionality rather than put up a static, quick-fix site that would be outdated quickly.
An ongoing process
In Delaware’s New Castle County, a medium-sized county comprising a third of the state, government officials have been upgrading the county IT system for nearly a decade. The county was working on a mainframe legacy system that had been improved a few times. The main limitation, says Tim Westbrook, county information systems manager, was that the new applications were written for other product lines and databases. Up to 30 people at a time were maintaining and writing separate applications.
The county wanted to better interact with customers and integrate county databases. After an extensive search, the county chose a system made by Hansen that has allowed it to restructure its operating policies and eliminate redundant procedures. Customer service has been greatly enhanced, Westbrook says.
“The new system turned the permitting department inside out in how they did business,” Westbrook says. “[In the past, the permit request] would go from one person to another and be issued after it went through the whole chain. Now it all lands in one person’s lap, and they’re sitting in front of a computer with the new software on it. The overall organization has had a huge increase in productivity.”
Typically, county employees have had mixed responses to the new procedures. “We have some users that picked up new systems enthusiastically and some that had a great deal of difficulty,” Westbrook says. “We’re dealing with human beings, and everyone struggles with something new. In some cases, people are doing stuff entirely differently than they were before. But the organization overall is benefiting.”
The county will continue to examine its infrastructure, equipment and networks, with an eye toward increasing Internet-based interaction with the public and internal departments. For example, the county recently developed an intranet system for the Police Department that allows officers to better exchange information. The county also is working to connect and deploy laptops for building inspectors, paramedics and other county employees who are mobile. “We’re getting technology out to the people where they work,” Westbrook says.
In this digital era of rapid-fire change, local governments will need to work harder to keep up with technology and consumer demands. Security is an increasing issue, for example. According to the Council for Excellence in Government survey, nearly 45 percent of respondents said that, while providing personal information likely would improve their e-government interactions, they are concerned about protecting their privacy.
Liability is another concern for local governments venturing into the next generation of computers. Recently, Fulton County, Ga., officials admitted that aging computer systems had led to numerous tax errors in which residents had been improperly assessed. The county now is considering an upgrade that will cost several million dollars.
To avoid problems, Westbrook says, counties should purchase the appropriate software. Attempting a partial or piecemeal solution only will backfire, he says. “One of our mistakes was we tried to be cheap and buy a [certain] PC-based application for fleet management,” Westbrook says. “I’m sure it was a fine solution for a garage with one or two mechanics, but it just didn’t fit us.”
Having a long-term IT plan in place is critical, Westbrook adds. Although it can be difficult, local governments must try to anticipate future needs and funding requirements so that an upgrade is not halted mid-stream during budget crunches.
Lastly, computers are nothing without people to operate them. Proper staffing, training and motivation are essential, Dues says. “When a project takes a long time, it’s hard to keep people motivated,” she says. “That’s why we’ve been rolling things out a few months at a time, because it re-energizes people.”
Kim A. O’Connell is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.