January 26, 2011 By Wayne Hanson
As Harry Truman once said: “It's a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it's a depression when you lose yours.” And while the buck stops at cities and counties, there is perhaps no greater testimony to the ability of local governments to meet the challenges of unemployment and recession than the 2010 winners in the Digital Cities survey and awards program.
As evidenced by the survey, behind the scenes in local government, economic heat and pressure has produced diamonds of innovation. Nobody said it was easy, but as the economy appears to be emerging from the worst stages of recession, some of those innovations – and the innovators who thought of them and pushed them through to completion -- must be pointed out.
A case in point is Richmond, Virginia. Mayor Dwight C. Jones in his “Build a Better Richmond” program said the city could not tax or cut its way out of looming financial challenges. Instead, new strategies were needed to not only weather the economic storm, but build toward a sustainable future. True, the city had some admirable qualities to build upon: Forbes magazine rated Richmond as the 4th best city in the U.S. to find a job, and the city was ranked among top five cities for quality of life. But more was needed.
In response to the mayor’s call for innovation, CIO Annette Flowers and a team of IT folks rolled up their sleeves, putting together a list of projects predicted to save money, while maintaining or improving delivery. Flowers’ Department of Information Technology (DIT) then launched cost-saving projects, among which were:
While the savings were coming to fruition, the city also increased bandwidth to its libraries, the VoIP solution has increased flexibility to computers and mobile devices, and equipment refreshes were completed on 129 network devices out of 161 that were due for replacement.
How does one go about reducing cell phones by 33 percent? Flowers said that DIT is responsible for managing the city’s telecom devices and budget, and it involved the departments in the decision. "When we looked at our initiatives for meeting our budget gaps,” she said, “we got the departments involved so it was collaborative. The only thing that was dictated was the 33 percent reduction."
Flowers said the mainframe hosting had an unexpected result: more savings than projected. “We’re doing our mainframe hosting with Verizon in Tampa, Fla.,” said Flowers, “and while $200,000 was the projected savings, this year we are seeing an additional $400,000.” Flowers said she knows a lot of government entities are struggling with hosting. “The step we took with the mainframe was not an easy one,” she said, “but we worked very hard with our vendor and were able to come up with a good solution.” She said this also helped pave the way for an ERP project.
Richmond discontinued its Project Management Office. “From the technology standpoint,” said Flowers, “each one of our team leads had been trained in project management, with experience managing projects over the years. So that responsibility for small to medium-sized projects was made the responsibility of those team leads. For larger projects, we included some funding for project management.”
While the city of Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield counties have no formal agreement, said Public Safety Project Manager Bill Hobgood, they often collaborate on projects of mutual interest. One such project is a regional traffic data website that covers the entire metropolitan region. Traffic accidents, for example, are transparent to the public and the media, as well as to the jurisdictions themselves. One result, he said, is a 12,000 call reduction from news media to the 911 center for traffic information. Richmond uses its technology to geocode accidents for the city and also for Chesterfield county.
Hobgood also is proud of a system that moves private alarm company system data in Richmond directly into the city’s computer aided dispatch system, rather than having to pick up the telephone and call the 911 center. “It shaves two to three minutes off the processing time,” said Hobgood, “the call instantly appears in front of the radio dispatcher, they dispatch the call so fire and police get there much quicker.” That has some wonderful benefits he said. “We’ve caught bank robbers and four burglary suspects in four different incidents, just because police are getting there so fast these days.” Fires are out faster, people are protected and lives are saved because of the system, he said.
Applications Solutions Division Manager Gurdeep Bhatia said that the "Common Cents" program application got a lot of accolades. “The mayor gave the city a goal to get ideas from the employees for budget reduction,” said Bhatia, “and how to perform cost savings.” He said the application was developed in two to three weeks and is used to route all the ideas through an approval process. “That application was rolled out last year," said Bhatia, “and it generated a savings of $2.8 million for the city.” In addition, he said, there are many more ideas that are being reviewed with the potential to save even more.
The mayor also launched a program called “Mayor’s Participation and Communication Corps" (MPACC) to facilitate the communication between the citizens and government. As part of this program, said Bhatia, a Web-based application program was implemented so citizens can submit and track the requests for services through the Internet. In addition, it allows citizens to send in service requests through smart phones (iPhone, Android and Blackberry). "Using these technologies,” he said, “they can even send a picture.”
Richmond continues to garner awards, including three digital government achievement awards, and an honorable mention, said Hobgood, as well as recognition from the mayor and City Council. “That’s certainly a reflection on this department,” he said. “That’s very important to the employees.”
“I’m most proud of the people," said Flowers, “and their willingness to really participate and come up with ideas, to become more efficient. That’s where a lot of these ideas came from, for us to be able to complete these projects.”
“What I would recommend to my colleagues,” said Flowers, “is not to look for the quick answers. Dig deep and take advantage of technology during these difficult economic times. It was a great opportunity for technology to solve problems and really saved the day."
For more information on Richmond’s systems contact Annette Flowers at Annette.Flowers@richmondgov.com