GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/Customizing software
Just a few years ago, only the largest cities and counties could afford technology that reflected their operations. Typically, using software that tracked permits, finances and work-orders required government agencies to change their operations. If local governments wanted the software to automate tasks exactly as staff performed them, it was either internally developed by a large IT staff or customized by consultants, which could cost millions of dollars.
Today, because of advancements in technology, even small local governments can tailor their software to match existing processes and operational changes. New systems are being created on platforms (like Windows’ .NET) that put the power of customization in the hands of any software user. Multi-tier structures allow changes to be made to one part of the software — like the database — without affecting other tiers, such as one that manages calculations.
Certainly not all system parameters can be customized, but operations — such as fee calculations, business process rules, graphic interfaces and address validations — often can be set by non-IT personnel. In the future, government software even could accommodate staff-specific workflow settings that tailor systems to each user.
Murrieta, Calif., is one local government that has customized its own software. Located 65 miles north of San Diego and 80 miles south of Los Angeles, Murrieta has seen its population explode from 2,200 in 1980 to more than 85,000 today.
The city has kept up with high-paced construction through innovative development practices such as deposit-based account management, which began in 2005. Before that, city departments had to manage separate accounts, with contractors pre-paying each department for permit-related fees — including plan checks and inspections. That sometimes led to outstanding balances with one department and a surplus with another. Last year, the city changed its policy so contractors now write one check, and all departments can debit from one account.
However, the city still could not share the deposit information with departments, so it purchased software that fully accounts for each deposit and automatically deducts charges that accrue against each account. The new software can handle more than 500 fees managed in more than 100 fee groups in city departments. Through customization, staff members create fee tables and are alerted to any deposit account that falls below 25 percent of the original funds, allowing managers to require more fees before the city continues the work.
Many agencies still may find it challenging to navigate, much less implement, the variety of ever-changing e-government technology. Yet, understanding some of the recent technological capabilities can help local government managers significantly improve their operations.
The authors are deputy city manager/finance director for Murrieta, Calif., and president of San Diego-based GovPartner, respectively.