December 29, 2010 By Andy Opsahl
About This Report
Government Technology’s Digital Communities program produces quarterly special reports based on the work of its four task forces. This report focuses on issues identified by the Digital Infrastructure Task Force, a group of public- and private-sector IT professionals that meets in-person and online to discuss improving digital infrastructure for regional and municipal governments.
If the general trend in news headlines is any indication, Americans are not feeling more confident about the government’s economic plight. The scene remains bleak with national unemployment staying near 10 percent. Local governments face the same harsh realities as their constituents and may struggle with strained budgets for years to come. A survey jointly conducted in mid-2010 by the National League of Cities, the United States Conference of Mayors and the National Association of Counties found that from 2010 through 2012 local governments expect to lose nearly 500,000 jobs. For example, Central Falls, R.I., has a deficit of 42 percent of its budget and Denver is evaluating ways to resolve a $100 million deficit.
One likely solution today might have seemed absurd a few years ago. A growing number of local government officials believe financial desperation will drive cities, counties and other jurisdictions to partner on shared application initiatives. Working together to purchase and host applications can help cities and counties reduce costs substantially and lighten their IT workloads. Given that local governments often struggle to persuade their own agencies to share technology, this may seem far-fetched. It’s remarkable, however, the way such biases can change when few alternatives exist.
Where is city/county collaboration likeliest to occur? Ken Price, director of Information Services for Littleton, Colo., identified common local services like public safety, roads and bridges, parks, libraries and museums. These usually have technology components. For example, most police departments use computer-aided dispatch programs and record management systems.
“Every city that has a law enforcement agency will have to have the same technology infrastructure in place,” Price said. “Some cities can afford to have their own systems, but some can’t. If they can band together and go after technology solutions, then they can afford them.” — Andy Opsahl, Features Editor
Governments faced with the necessity of collaboration have several initiatives they could use as templates. In Fort Collins, Colo., the city’s e-mail services will be housed in one place: the local Poudre School District. In an intergovernmental agreement, after a one-time transition fee of about $170,000, the city will pay the district $20 per seat each year to maintain e-mail and upgrade to a Microsoft Exchange system for more than 1,800 city employees, said Fort Collins CIO Tom Vosburg.
“We’re contracting with them to be our e-mail provider instead of doing it in-house,” Vosburg said. “And we’re going to save around $55,000 a year doing that.”
The city is not the only one realizing cost savings. The increased number of end-users allows the Poudre School District to reduce its costs, offsetting employee hours spent maintaining the system and a secretary’s time spent answering related queries.
“For them, the benefits are that they have the same [e-mail] service as they did before they were the host, and their costs have decreased by 14 percent. They think it will go down to a 25 percent reduction,” Vosburg said.
Ken Price, director of Information Services for Littleton, Colo., added that with the influx of funds, the hosting organization can invest back into the system for upgrades.
Members of the Digital Communities Digital Infrastructure Task Force identified e-mail as a likely starting point for shared service initiatives. However, jurisdictions also can collaborate on services like payroll and administrative duties. In Kent County, Mich., the Intermediate School District launched a shared services venture where the five school districts in the northern part of the county share payroll and accounts payable services, among other programs. As many as 20 other districts are considering joining this group in 2011. Kent Swinson, superintendent of Minnesota’s Sparta Area School District — one of the five districts participating — said he expects Sparta to save at least $75,000.
Shared services are growing more popular with law enforcement agencies too. In Minnesota, the Local Government Information Systems (LOGIS) consortium is a quasi-government agency and nonprofit coalition that recently rolled out a Ticket Writer application in police cars and booking rooms. The application fills a ticket template with the driver’s information based on his or her license or license plate number, guides manual data entry, prints the citation in the squad car and transmits the data to the courts. The consortium said the process helps save time and money, and reduces errors due to redundant data entry.
Other LOGIS applications are used for permits and inspection, equipment management, code enforcement, and payroll and human resources. The consortium is controlled by its members with a board of directors comprising one representative from each agency. All funding decisions are controlled by the members through an annual budget and work plan, and by action of an executive committee.
“They’ve been in business for several decades. They are the flagship example of what local government shared services could be,” Vosburg said.
Local assessment agencies also have discovered that they can share several types of applications. A consortium of counties in Colorado’s San Luis Valley created a sharing plan after news that their individual vendor-supported property assessment management software was becoming more expensive. Pueblo County now hosts the group’s property assessment management for assessor offices, property taxation management for treasurer offices as well as GIS warehousing. Funds that would have been paid in fees to the vendor go to the county to offset the costs required to run the expanded service. Pueblo County was able to implement the program within its existing budget, so no new funding for hardware was needed.
Colorado is becoming a hotbed of government shared services collaboration. One group fueling that activity is the Government Shared Services Council, a standing subcommittee of the Colorado Government Association of Information Technology (CGAIT).
Vosburg said numerous shared service initiatives have been inspired by CGAIT, including a regional consortium of cities in the Boulder region that formed around a wide area network initiative. The cities partnered on acquisition of technology and the management of a Wi-Fi network.
In Washtenaw County, Mich., home to Ann Arbor and surrounding areas, County Commissioner Kristin Judge organized the seven member counties of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments to discuss a shared services model.
“I wanted to get a commissioner or two from each county and the IT director from each county in a room,” Judge said. “We all do similar things. Everyone has tax roll. We all do assessing. We all do dog licensing. We all run a jail and a court system.
“Everybody came to the table willingly, ready to work and find ways to save money,” she said. “We’re creating this database of what we all have, so that when someone is doing something new and needs software, they can just go to this local database and say, ‘Oakland [County] already has that. Why don’t we just lease it from them?’ Then we don’t have to go pay this open market price and we can share.”
Washington state’s Puget Sound region is a sterling example of the benefits to sharing Web services across jurisdictions. In 2001, nine area cities formed the eCityGov Alliance, which created central, multigovernment portals for offering citizen services. For example, the average citizen looking to obtain a building permit or buy or lease commercial property often encounters obstacles due to the wide range of zoning laws. The eCityGov Alliance helps constituents avoid sifting through a mess of bureaucratic confusion by providing a unified source for various service-specific portals. The site, MyBuildingPermit.com, is a central location for obtaining and monitoring permits, and providing checklists to enable safe and proper construction. The easier this process is made, the more citizens follow rules and regulations, and avoid fines and other pitfalls.
Other alliance portals include MyParksAndRecreation.com, which allows visitors to search the parks, trails and facilities provided by the member cities. Another portal displays interactive GIS mapping, which includes extensive information on property data, zoning and demographics of the region.
This has eliminated duplicate services in several local governments while allowing each to control the policies by which they generate those services. The cost of participating in the alliance depends on the member city’s population.
“This permit, building and land development system presents a consistent look and feel for Puget Sound,” Vosburg said. “It is a one-stop shop for the region. You don’t have to know what city you’re building in.”
These services go beyond the nine partner cities that founded the alliance, 28 cities and agencies have been added as member subscribers. Thirty-nine participating municipalities covering 1.3 million citizens across four counties are now represented and able to access these portal services.
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.