December 16, 2009 By Andy Opsahl
The economic desperation of 2009 gave new urgency to the IT cliché of "doing more with less." The notion went from being a routine, laudable government mandate to a survival strategy in local governments that faced gutted budgets and layoffs. Not surprisingly, moving more government services online was a primary solution. Fewer citizens showing up for services at government buildings can mean that fewer employees are needed to provide assistance in person.
Nearly all of the top finishers in the Center for Digital Government's 2009 Digital Counties Survey had new e-government services. However, some local governments reduced costs with solutions that ventured beyond the conventional realm, such as the District of Columbia's Apps for Democracy program, which awards cash prizes to private software developers who create innovative applications using government data. The contest has generated applications worth millions of dollars for very little cost, the district says.
Other solutions stem from troubled times of years past. For instance, Oakland County, Mich., has mature cost-reduction strategies already in place due to an exodus of the state's manufacturing jobs that started during the mid-1990s. Here's a look at some of the notable ways technology filled in the gaps that were opened by layoffs and less funding.
The budget cutbacks in most local governments during 2009 likely garnered little sympathy among Oakland County employees. They've grappled with a shrinking budget for years and expect their situation to worsen. Analysts predict Oakland County's property tax revenue will decline by 30 percent over the next three years, said county CIO Phil Bertolini. Finding ways to save money is the job of everybody collecting a paycheck from that government, and employees are eager to contribute ideas, according to Jim Taylor, chief of e-government services for Oakland County.
"I think we all feel like a family in Michigan. We're in this budget crisis together. If we can save costs, we can save jobs, and it's better for citizens," Taylor told Government Technology. The county made headlines for a blog forum it deployed in 2009 that lets employees submit their cost-reduction ideas. The project resulted in a $600,000 elimination of annual IT costs. However, Bertolini credits more substantial savings to the government's Clarity Project and Portfolio Management System. The Oakland County Department of Information Technology has cut $7.1 million from its annual budget since 2003, and most of those savings came from nontechnical end-users, thanks to the portfolio management system. The tool lays out all IT projects in a centralized location in a format that displays each project's timeline, tasks, estimated hours of work, budget and a return on investment analysis. Bertolini said it gives staff all the data they need to decide whether to cut a project or keep it going.
"That has immediate buy-in with the business units because they're the ones who are sitting at the table making the changes. It enables them to play a larger role. It's not us coming in and saying, 'Hey, you need to knock off your ninth and 10th priority because we have a budget cut,'" Bertolini said.
Phil Bertolini, CIO, Oakland County, Mich. Photo by Kelly LaDuke.
State and local governments have largely kept their distance from cloud computing, the practice of using software hosted by an outside entity. The idea of storing sensitive data offsite usually scares public officials, but staff reductions are warming some governments to the idea. Chris Willey, former interim CTO of the District of Columbia, told Government Technology of his city's deployment of Google Apps. He insisted that the vendor's cloud-computing products have saved
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.