Time to upgrade your office?
Despite tight budgets, some local governments have discovered that upgrading office technology — from multifunction devices to computers — has helped improve efficiency. In this GovPro Special Report, IT leaders from Washtenaw County, Mich.; Bellevue and Seattle, Wash.; and Winston-Salem, N.C.; share their creative strategies for updating office equipment in a down economy.
Centralized service: share and share alike
Almost entirely gone are the days of desktop printers and other devices used only by one or a few people. Many local governments are moving to consolidated computer peripheral devices — printers, fax machines, copiers and scanners — that are more cost-effective and centrally located for an entire office or department.
Washtenaw County has been consolidating its peripherals gradually since 2005. “I would say 60 of 400 printers are multi-function devices,” says Dale Vanderford, director of information technology, noting that average prices have fallen to around $8,000 a device, making the switch more compelling. Moreover, the networked equipment has built-in functions that track use, so the IT department charges users a per-copy cost to recover its investment and ongoing costs for maintenance and consumables.
Still, given current budget constraints, the county has slowed down its replacement of printers with multi-function devices. “We are now doing replacements opportunistically,” Vanderford says. “We evaluate the office’s usage and implement the multi-function machines if there’s a compelling business reason.”
Bellevue switched to multi-user, multi-function devices in 2005, when employees moved into a new city hall facility. Since then, the city has followed a peripheral policy, managed by the purchasing department, that specifies the combination of centrally located laser printers (for routine black-and-white printing) and multi-function devices for routine color printing, faxing, scanning and copying. (Large print jobs are handled by an in-hose print shop.) “We’ve already rationalized that piece of the pie, so printers are not yet an enormous issue for us” in the current fiscal climate, says Toni Cramer, the city’s CIO.
The PC balancing act: who needs the latest model?
Cramer also is evaluating the city’s three-year replacement cycle for desktop computers to determine whether some new equipment purchases can be delayed. “We are pausing this year to re-evaluate desktop requirements and get more granular about timing for replacements,” Cramer says. “We’re coming up with user profiles so we can determine who really needs what.”
User profiling defines categories of users based on the demands they place on computer equipment. Managers and administrative staff often can get by with slower, older equipment operating with a standard array of office software and Web-based applications. Specialized users of geographic information systems (GIS), design software, and other resource-intensive applications require PCs with more memory and higher performance.
The standard three-year PC update cycle has been extended to four years for approximately 2,300 PCs in Washtenaw County, where a freeze on hiring IT staff has been in place for a year. The extension is definitely a short-term strategy because after the fourth year, cost of ownership rises rapidly by 20 percent, Vanderford says, citing analyst research data. “So I’m trying to hold it to four years as much as I can.”
In Winston-Salem, roughly one-third of the PCs are replaced in an annual cycle that was disrupted this year to conserve funds. “It definitely reduces capital costs because you’re deferring the purchase for another year,” says CIO Dennis Newman. “But, when you add up the cost and labor for fixing equipment failures, for upgrades that are required due to new software demands, it’s questionable whether it’s a long-term cost savings. But in a tight economy, it’s a reasonable tradeoff to defer to short-term economics.”
Software update dilemma: it’s a house of cards
In contrast, Seattle’s long-term upgrade plans remain in force. “We have an initiative, which will total about $10 million over the next two years, to basically do a ‘forklift’ of our office technology,” says Bill Schrier, chief technology officer.
Previously, many Seattle departments managed their own software purchases, resulting in greater costs and multiple versions of software throughout the city. Ultimately, the update will save the city money, as it spends $2.7 million to standardize on one office software suite across approximately 11,000 desktop computers used by 10,500 employees in 28 departments. The upgrade will roll out over the next 18 months.
The software upgrade decision is complex, given that many local governments purchase enterprise software license agreements, in which there is no added charge for receiving the latest version of the operating system and office applications suite. But, government officials must consider whether upgrading certain applications will cause problems for any others that employees use. “There’s a logistical issue whether or not we can do the upgrade and have all the applications play nicely in the sandbox,” Cramer says.
For that reason, Bellevue has delayed upgrading employees’ operating systems, but it is upgrading their standard office software, which has its own compatibility issues. “We’ve identified 100-plus databases that will need to be evaluated one by one and potentially modified to function properly with the new software,” Cramer says. “It’s not a click of the button and then they move over.”
In a move that expands the definition of “office,” Washtenaw County has deployed technology that allows employees to securely work from home using their own PCs instead of costly county-owned laptops. The cost for the county is a one-time license fee of $300 per user – much less costly than purchasing and maintaining laptops – and most employees are happy to use the option.
Given the limited lifespan of computer hardware and software, as well as peripheral equipment for printing, faxing and other business functions, cities and counties cannot avoid upgrading office technology. They can get creative, though, in when and how the changes are made.
John W. DeWitt is a marketing consultant and business writer based in New Salem, Mass. He can be reached at [email protected] or www.jwdewitt.com.