June 6, 2012 By Colin Wood
There’s no law that says local governments have to cooperate with one another, so they often don’t. But in Hennepin County, Minn., and the surrounding community, they are. The county is sharing infrastructure across dozens of local government entities to build a countywide fiber network, connecting data centers with adjacent counties with an eye on shared services, and collaborating on e-government, county CIO Judy Regenscheid said.
“It’s definitely one thing the economy helped make happen, is it really opens that door and the barriers went down on any reason not to do collaboration,” Regenscheid said.
In the land of 10,000 lakes, Hennepin County is the land of 104 lakes, presenting unique geographical challenges for an IT department that needs a fiber network in order to offer services to the state’s most populous county. The county took a look at all its options and decided that in today’s economy, it simply wasn’t practical to act like Rambo — going alone with brute force wouldn’t get the job done well. They needed to collaborate.
“When we started looking into this, we realized we have several partners that we need to work regularly with and [we] will continue to be doing that,” Regenscheid said. This effort includes the state and many local governments. “There are 45 cities within Hennepin County that we do business with,” she said. “Each of us are trying to solve this problem, and the best solution was to come together in a collaboration to say, ‘How can we lay this grid that will benefit everyone and [how] we can capitalize on cost sharing?’”
The county is being diligent in how the grid is designed, Regenscheid said. For example, if there’s a school or law enforcement agency that already has fiber in place, the county will include that facility in the design of the county’s grid rather than building around it or just ignoring that it’s there. The goal is to be efficient.
Making up less than 1 percent of Minnesota’s total landmass, Hennepin County, which contains the city of Minneapolis, is home to more than 20 percent of the state’s population. Living near water and beautiful scenery tends to make people more environmentally minded, Regenscheid said, and Minnesotans do appreciate their natural surroundings, ranking No. 1 in the country for percentage of population that engages in regular physical exercise (84.1 percent). The county is also very high in volunteerism, she said. People want to work together to make their home a better place in Hennepin County.
In a separate project but related to the fiber network, Hennepin County is completing construction this month that connects county data centers in Hennepin County with those of eight other nearby counties, Regenscheid said. The project is called the Metro County Fiber Interconnect.
“That not only gives us that fiber ring backbone, but also opens up the opportunity for more collaborative services and application sharing, as well as we’re exploring looking at shared data centers,” she said.
To lay down all this fiber, the county is piggybacking on county road construction projects, Regenscheid said. This way, the ground only is dug up once and the county saves money.
Collaboration extends to the county’s e-government efforts too. Hennepin County making a concerted effort to ask agencies what they need and to develop e-government offerings in a way that won’t require any retracing of footsteps, Regenscheid said. For instance, both the library system and tax payment system require the collection of funds, so the county is making an effort to create one solution that will work for all payment collection functions across the county, she said. That way, the solution is truly modular and the county doesn’t need to do more work than necessary.
“We created in all our lines of business a centralized steering committee governance board for e-gov, so that we can look from a county perspective instead of an individual department perspective,” Regenscheid said. “And the board is really focusing on, ‘Where do we have the commonalities?’”
Hennepin County is also looking to do things differently in the way it offers health and human services, Regenscheid said. “Right now, what we have is a lot of buildings in downtown Minneapolis and many of our clients are not necessarily in downtown Minneapolis,” she said.
The county will create six regional one-stop hubs, along with satellite centers, for health and human services. The goal is to provide more convenient service. One issue with the current system the county has, Regenscheid said, is that because there are so many disparate departments and offices, citizens often have to complete redundant paperwork and wind up retelling their story over and over again to different government employees.
Through the use of digital imaging, video conferencing and other technology at these regional centers, a citizen will be able to get more services in one place and the county will be able to offer more efficient service. Rather than government employees looking at citizens on a case-by-case basis, there will be citizen-based or family-based case files that will allow government to see a bigger picture, identify overlaps or conflicts in departmental services, and save time for everyone while improving the health of citizens.
This Digital Communities white paper highlights discussions with IT officials in four counties that have adopted shared services models. Our aim was to learn about the obstacles these governments have faced when it comes to shared services and what it takes to overcome those roadblocks. We also spoke with several members of the IT industry who have thought long and hard about these issues. The paper offers some best practices for shared government-to-government services, but also points out challenges that government and industry still must overcome before this model gains widespread adoption.