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CitySmart Blog

Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Nathan Eisner, CMO

More than any other city web page, your elected official page represents the most direct connection to citizens. After all, these are the city officials who citizens elect to represent them. They are public servants. Through city council and regular communications, their jobs are to stay in touch with citizens and pass on constituent concerns to city council.

Many cities neglect their mayor and city council pages because they don’t have a clear service component like news, events, City Hall, or department pages. But if you neglect certain pieces of key content on your mayor and city council page, you risk sending the message that you don’t care, that it’s difficult to contact elected officials, and that your local government might not be transparent enough.

Here are a few basic tips to make sure you’ve got the essentials covered on your mayor and city council page.

  1. Craft a short but warm welcome message from the mayor. A nice welcome message is like having a good host at a party. Its job is to lead you to the party, and it’s an important function. Don’t ramble on and go into the detailed history of your city, and don’t create a generic message full of vague platitudes. Make it short, make sure it’s in the mayor’s distinct voice, and add a few choice specifics about the city and the importance of local government leadership.
  2. Provide bios and high-quality pictures of elected officials. So that you humanize the people who have been elected to office, create a short but interesting bio that highlights each elected official’s background, values, and some personal interests. Supplement that bio with a high-quality photograph. Try to avoid grainy or scanned photos, or photos taken hastily with a smartphone camera. You want your elected officials to look good and take pride in representing your city.
  3. Showcase a list of upcoming (and past) meetings with agendas attached. While people usually don’t flock to city council meetings, there are always a few regulars and the occasional meeting that involves higher public participation and interest. Provide a list of upcoming meetings at least 2-4 weeks out, if not more. This simple piece of content increases transparency and keeps citizens in the know about what issues are currently important to elected officials and citizens. While agendas are harder to post 2-4 weeks out, there should be agendas for at least the next one or two meetings so that citizens can plan and prepare.
  4. Post minutes as soon as possible after the meeting. Some agenda management software can help make sure this happens within 24 hours, but try to post the minutes within a few days after the meeting. Any more time makes it an inconvenience to citizens and the media who may want to accurately report on decisions made at the meeting. Even though many citizens may not attend city council meetings, they still like to review minutes to read about what their elected officials are focusing on and what issues are being addressed (and not being addressed).
  5. Place contact information in an easy-to-find place. Contact information should be clearly visible on each mayor and city council page. It’s part of an elected official’s job to be available to citizens. If contact information is missing or incomplete, it creates the perception that the elected official isn’t as available as they should be. This is an even more important responsibility on your part because the website is not something an elected official has day-to-day control over. If the elected official promises to be readily available but you slip up on the website, it can hurt public perception. Provide a phone number, email address, and possibly an online form to make sure it is easy to contact any elected official.

Luckily, this is all basic information and relatively easy to obtain. Shoring up this information on your website will make citizens happy and the functioning of your elected official communications that much smoother. It’s really just about information—about the elected officials, the meetings, and the decisions they make. Citizens may disagree or want to debate city issues, but that’s good. It’s bad when citizens are angry over lack of information.

To talk more about mayor and city council website content, please contact us.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014
John Miller, Senior Consultant

Document management is one of those areas that happens to you whether you have software or not. After all, your city probably creates documents every day and there is a process for managing those documents. It may not be the best process, but it’s a process. This leads many cities to ask us, “What’s the difference between my document management and Document Management?”

To understand the term “document management” more formally and to understand why software is used to help with this process, it’s helpful to look at the history of problems and issues that led to document management.

  • Paper documents. Paper documents hold a lot of risk for cities. Fire, theft, or simply losing a paper document means it’s gone forever. Plus, even with exceptional filing systems it’s difficult to search for paper documents. We once worked with a city that had people working for one full week to pull some information about red-light ticketing from paper-based documents that would have taken 30 minutes with document management software.
  • People storing important electronic documents on their own computers. The computer age ushered in the age of electronic documents, but cities soon faced a major document problem when many different people stored important documents on their individual computers. If you needed to access an important document, you might have to figure out who had it, ask for it, hope that the person had a copy on their computer, and hope that they gave it to you on time. If that person left the city, was on vacation, or had their computer crash, those documents were at risk.
  • Adhering to a consistent workflow to ensure document quality. Many cities do not have document workflows. That means people open up Microsoft Word and create a document however they want. Documents that are supposed to be similar may have different templates, lengths, and information included. The approval process becomes even more chaotic, usually taking place through email. People rarely know who has revised the document last, or what they revised.
  • Tracking all documents as assets. When you think about it, documents are really property of the city. Would you allow your police cars to park wherever they wanted across various city lawns, parks, and public property? Or would you park them all in one place so that you can keep an inventory and track them? When cities need to access documents, images, and other important files, it’s often hard to find them if they aren’t centralized and organized in a consistent way.
  • Responding to open records requests. As people expect a city’s response to an open record request to be more agile as technology evolves, cities have realized that it’s harder to search for records if they are using outdated document management techniques such as paper or electronic documents stored individually on people’s computers. It’s no longer an excuse for cities to delay responding to an open records request when so much affordable technology is available to help make finding documents much quicker.

So What Is Document Management?

Okay, so those are the problems. But what does document management software do that your own manual processes can’t do?

  1. Automate and standardize document creation. The software still allows you to use programs such as Microsoft Word. But you go into the document management software to find templates that guide how a document needs to be created. This helps standardize documents so that they look the same, such as a monthly finance report. Workflows also help guide your document creation. For example, you might be a document reviewer and you’ll receive a notification that it’s time to review a document when the creator submits it into the document management system.
  2. Share and collaborate transparently. A document management system allows you to share documents with other users within the software. That way, you can work on documents, see who else is working on the same document, and track changes within the software, instead of through the chaos of hunting for emails. Plus, with workflows built in you’ll find yourself collaborating with other city staff on a document at various stages such as creation, editing, review, and approval. The software centralizes all communications related to particular documents so that it’s easy to collaborate and see what’s been done.
  3. Organize and store information. Because documents are city property, a document management system helps store them properly. A vendor will help you set up folders based on the desired ways you want to organize your information. Then, anyone with authorized access can go to one place within the software to find documents. No more asking people if they have important documents or not. This kind of organization and storage helps cities adhere to policies and laws related to open records requests and record retention.
  4. Tag and label documents to help with search. If you have a lot of documents, you want to be able to find them. Document management systems have search mechanisms built into the software to help you tag documents for easier search. For most cities, that means adding what’s called “metadata” to documents. For example, a report about a new park being built might be labeled “Parks & Recreation” and “Economic Development” so that people who search for those terms will see this document come up in search results within the document management system.
  5. Secure and limit access to documents. With old ways of managing documents, it’s either too easy (such as with paper) or too hard (such as a person refusing to give you an important document on a whim) to access documents. Document management systems have security built in so that only authorized users have access to documents. That means you can restrict access to only those people who need to look at a particular document, and it’s all automated within the system.

As you can see, a document management system is less mysterious than it looks at first glance. It really just solves a variety of problems that occur when you don’t have software that can manage the document process better. For cities, a document management system becomes much more important when considering the legal aspects of documents for open records requests and document retention. A good archiving strategy is much easier with document management software.

To talk about document management in more detail, please contact us.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Dawsonville, incorporated as a city in 1859, is the county seat of Dawson County in Georgia. Steeped in Southern history, Dawsonville is speeding quickly into the future. While still small at 2,536 residents, the city experienced a population increase of 139% between 2000 and 2010. That’s probably because of its high quality of life. Dawsonville hosts a number of festivals and events, including The Mountain Moonshine Festival that features cars, arts and crafts displays, clogging, and other entertainment.

Challenge

For many years, the city mostly worked with a basic set of technologies: some servers, computers, and a website. The servers and computers were repaired or replaced as needed, and they were even used for data backup. Trying to get employees to regularly back up their data onto a server introduced uncertainty, especially when the servers ran out of disk space.

The city’s lack of technology strategy indicated a variety of deeper problems and missed opportunities to serve citizens. The city also had an outdated website that made it difficult to communicate with citizens, and no real document management system that digitized and securely stored paper documents to mitigate the risk of data loss at City Hall.

Despite wanting to be proactive in dealing with its technology issues, the city found that the potential high cost of upgrading its technology prevented city leaders from moving forward.

Solution

Dawsonville solved these challenges by using the Georgia Municipal Association’s “IT in a Box” service. Powered by Sophicity, “IT in a Box” is a complete IT solution for cities and local governments. The service includes a website, data backup, offsite storage, email, document management, Microsoft Office for desktops, server and desktop management, vendor management, and a seven-day a week helpdesk.

Results

“IT in a Box” helped Dawsonville:

  • Mitigate the risk of data loss with onsite and offsite backups.
  • Launch a high quality, user-friendly website.
  • Ensure a highly available and dependable email system.
  • Eliminate or upgrade much of the city’s hardware, and move most of the city’s data into the cloud to increase quality of service and reduce overall costs.
  • Support its city staff through ongoing monitoring and maintenance of servers and workstations, coupled with 7 days a week helpdesk support.

Dawsonville also saved $26,868 (or 58%) of the costs typically spent modernizing a city network of their environment and size. “IT in a Box” also helped Dawsonville establish a strong technology foundation and create a predictable IT budget.

Sophicity came to our attention at the perfect time. Their ability to analyze our systems and guide us in establishing what works for us, and not just provide a stamped out package, was amazing. Great people, great systems, and great teamwork—all working together. It’s indicative of the same teamwork GMA provides in bringing us new and better ways to improve our cities. - W. James Grogan, Mayor
If you're interested in learning more, contact us about IT in a Box.

Print-friendly version of the Dawsonville, Georgia IT in a Box case study.

About Sophicity

Sophicity is an IT products and services company providing technology solutions to city governments and municipal leagues. Among the services Sophicity delivers in “IT in a Box” are a website, data backup, offsite data storage, email, document management, Microsoft Office for desktops, server, desktop, and mobile management, vendor management and a seven-day a week helpdesk. Read more about IT in a Box.

Thursday, May 15, 2014
Dave Mims, CEO

Dawsonville, incorporated as a city in 1859, is the county seat of Dawson County in Georgia. Steeped in Southern history, Dawsonville is speeding quickly into the future. While still small at 2,536 residents, the city experienced a population increase of 139% between 2000 and 2010. That’s probably because of its high quality of life. Dawsonville hosts a number of festivals and events, including The Mountain Moonshine Festival that features cars, arts and crafts displays, clogging, and other entertainment.

Challenge

For many years, the city mostly worked with a basic set of technologies: some servers, computers, and a website. The servers and computers were repaired or replaced as needed, and they were even used for data backup. Trying to get employees to regularly back up their data onto a server introduced uncertainty, especially when the servers ran out of disk space.

The city’s lack of technology strategy indicated a variety of deeper problems and missed opportunities to serve citizens. The city also had an outdated website that made it difficult to communicate with citizens, and no real document management system that digitized and securely stored paper documents to mitigate the risk of data loss at City Hall.

Despite wanting to be proactive in dealing with its technology issues, the city found that the potential high cost of upgrading its technology prevented city leaders from moving forward.

Solution

Dawsonville solved these challenges by using the Georgia Municipal Association’s “IT in a Box” service. Powered by Sophicity, “IT in a Box” is a complete IT solution for cities and local governments. The service includes a website, data backup, offsite storage, email, document management, Microsoft Office for desktops, server and desktop management, vendor management, and a seven-day a week helpdesk.

Results

“IT in a Box” helped Dawsonville:

  • Mitigate the risk of data loss with onsite and offsite backups.
  • Launch a high quality, user-friendly website.
  • Ensure a highly available and dependable email system.
  • Eliminate or upgrade much of the city’s hardware, and move most of the city’s data into the cloud to increase quality of service and reduce overall costs.
  • Support its city staff through ongoing monitoring and maintenance of servers and workstations, coupled with 7 days a week helpdesk support.

Dawsonville also saved $26,868 (or 58%) of the costs typically spent modernizing a city network of their environment and size. “IT in a Box” also helped Dawsonville establish a strong technology foundation and create a predictable IT budget.

Sophicity came to our attention at the perfect time. Their ability to analyze our systems and guide us in establishing what works for us, and not just provide a stamped out package, was amazing. Great people, great systems, and great teamwork—all working together. It’s indicative of the same teamwork GMA provides in bringing us new and better ways to improve our cities. - W. James Grogan, Mayor
If you're interested in learning more, contact us about IT in a Box.

Print-friendly version of the Dawsonville, Georgia IT in a Box case study.

About Sophicity

Sophicity is an IT products and services company providing technology solutions to city governments and municipal leagues. Among the services Sophicity delivers in “IT in a Box” are a website, data backup, offsite data storage, email, document management, Microsoft Office for desktops, server, desktop, and mobile management, vendor management and a seven-day a week helpdesk. Read more about IT in a Box.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Brian Ocfemia, Technical Account Manager

It’s budgeting season for many cities, and information technology is a line item that often get scrutinized during this time. Technology has evolved rapidly over the past five years not just in terms of speed and capabilities but also with how typical costs are structured. So, what do these technology shifts mean to city budgets?

While keeping up with technology can be frustrating, the benefit of technology's evolution to cities is a lower price for more capabilities. For example, with the advent of cloud computing (a truly disruptive technology), the entire model of technology budgeting is shifting from capital to operational expenses.

To see where you might be able to save costs, both in the short-term and for the long haul, we explore a few potential ways to slash your city’s budget with newer technology.

  1. Eliminate hardware to reduce capital expenses. Cloud computing advances mean there is a potential that you can get rid of servers. That means eliminating the need to buy new hardware every few years, reducing your capital expenses. You also reduce costs related to supporting and maintaining that hardware along with the cost of building space, power, and cooling. Instead, you can switch over to cloud software accessed through the Internet for a much lower operational cost.
  2. Revisit contracts. If you haven’t looked at a technology contract in many years, then you need to revisit them. The costs of so many technology services have gone down and competition has multiplied in many areas. We’ve seen quite a few cities automatically renewing old ISP or telecom contracts without recently shopping around for lower-cost and higher-quality service providers. The same goes for hardware, software, and IT support. Vendors get complacent if they haven’t been challenged for many years. Even if you still want to use the same vendor, shopping around and reviewing contracts potentially opens up a contract renegotiation discussion that will most likely be to your benefit. Especially question any automatically renewing or multi-year contracts—revisiting those have the most potential for cost savings.
  3. Consider cloud software subscriptions instead of traditional software licenses. Not only does traditional software often tie you to onsite hardware, but the software licenses are purchased upfront as a capital expense. That means you estimate the number of users you need and build your budget around that large expense. Cloud software not only reduces the overall cost of a license but also transforms it into an operational expense that’s easily terminated or scalable. Cloud software works like a subscription. You turn it off or on, and you can designate the exact number of users you need. On a month by month basis, you can add or subtract users to make sure you’re only paying for exactly what you’re using.
  4. Transition from reactive, unpredictable IT support to proactive, predictable IT support. Cities don’t like unpredictable IT expenses. Yet, we see cities often put up with reactive, unpredictable IT support costs that add risk and uncertainty to their budget. The intent is good: reactive IT support appears to save money. After all, you only use it when you need it. But would you only call in an accountant during a financial crisis? Or would you hire a finance officer who proactively handles city finances all year in order to prevent crises? IT works the same way. Budget predictably for ongoing monitoring, maintenance, and support of your technology (servers, workstations, website, software support, vendor management, etc.) and you will see your unpredictable costs drop and recurring IT problems mostly go away.
  5. Use technology to automate manual processes. For operational areas that include data backup, document management, city council meeting minutes, or utility billing, you may still rely on people performing manual processes to handle these tasks. Technology can help automate many manual processes and ease your budget by increasing employee productivity, reducing the costs of paper and physical data backup media, and eliminating hours of wasted time. You might want to explore solutions such as automated data backup, a document management system that helps eliminate paper, software that automates your city council meeting agenda and minutes process, or an online payment system that reduces paper billing and phone calls.

On the surface, it can seem that these technologies might increase costs, especially if you haven’t taken a look at your technology assets in a long time. Many cities even don’t include IT as a budget line item (or bury it in other areas of the budget). However, by eliminating hardware, revisiting contracts, switching to cloud software subscription models, shifting to a proactive predictable IT support model, and automating manual processes, you open up the possibility to seriously and positively impact your budget.

To talk more about city IT budgeting, please contact us.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014
Clint Nelms, COO

In the past, we’ve talked about many aspects of document management, sometimes hinting when certain aspects (like indexing) affect search. But let’s tackle the art of document management searching itself, since it’s something city staff will perform constantly as part of their daily work.

Often, city staff can grow disappointed when they expect document management searching to work like Google. That’s a bit unfair, since Google’s search engine is the best and most sophisticated in the business. Plus, Google is indexing and showing search results for the entire Internet in the best way they feel suits most people’s needs.

Since your documents are your own assets, that means you’re responsible for taking steps to make them searchable and findable. Some of those aspects are automated depending on the type of document management system you choose. But others need your business input along with the help of an IT expert, document management expert, and (in sophisticated cases) an information architect.

For most small and medium cities, the following tips will get you started on building a foundation for making your documents easier to search within your document management system.

  1. Explore robust full-text search capabilities. So that you don’t overlook the most basic of all search techniques, make sure that your document management system searches through all text within each document. Since the 1990s, this has been the best kind of standard search for desktop computers and remains the most familiar to users. Especially with very precise searches for words and phrases, this kind of search will do the trick. Make sure your document management system doesn’t have limited full-text search capabilities. For massive amounts of documents, you might limit the number of documents encompassed by full-text search because it might freeze up your servers, but you need to have a clear business and IT reason for doing so.
  2. Provide metadata and tagging. Metadata is data that describes a document. Basic metadata that you’re used to might be author, title, and date created. Additional metadata such as a document summary or meta description (e.g. the description you see in a Google search result) help provide concise search result summaries when city staff search for a specific term. You might also want to tag your document with keywords. For example, a document tagged “public safety” will come up in search results when people search for “public safety,” even if the document doesn’t actually contain the word “public safety.”
  3. Use keywords in document titles, descriptions, and within the document. Keywords are words and phrases that people use when they search. With a combination of basic marketing and IT expertise, you should be able to figure out common terms that city staff use to search for documents. Often, what you think people search for might not be what they actually type into the search box. Once you know what keywords people use to search, you can make sure they end up in document titles, your document meta descriptions, and within the document content itself.
  4. Allow advanced searching and querying. Many document management systems are equipped with advanced searching, but it’s often quite useless out of the box. That’s because you need to create the appropriate metadata and fields on the backend of your document management system to make it work. When you’re on a retail website, for example, an advanced search may allow you to search for a type (smartphone), brand (Apple), and price (less than $400). On the backend, products are tagged by type, brand, and price to make that happen. The same logic applies to documents. In one scenario, you might want city staff to search for documents by date created (after 2012), department type (public works), and project type (building construction). If you’re tagging documents by department type and project type, city staff will be able to perform those kinds of advanced searches.
  5. Explore the document management system’s relevant results capabilities. Let’s say you search for “police.” A limited document management system would only return results with the word “police” or documents you’ve tagged “police.” But if your document management system is smart enough to know that “public safety” results are relevant to a search for “police,” then those “public safety” results will also show up. On the technical side, your IT or document management vendor should explore the document management system’s search algorithm capabilities to see how sophisticated the relevant search results are. On your side, you can work on making search results more relevant by building in rules or using what’s known as a “taxonomy” to help hone the relevance. For example, you might have a rule that says any search for “public safety” will include documents tagged “police” or “fire.”

As you can see, search technology can become complicated rather quickly. However, your IT staff or document management vendor can help guide you through the search capabilities of your document management system. In many cases, providing better searching for city staff is easy but tedious as you decide the rules and implement tagging and metadata. However, the reward is the better search results. No longer will you be frustrated that you only receive a bunch of random results that only contain an exact search phrase. Instead, you’ll see relevant results based on your own tagging and empowered by smart use of technology.

For more information about document management searching, please contact us.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Alicia Klemola, Account Manager

Public works encompasses a lot—everything from new buildings that take years to build to fixing potholes. Because of that broad scope, it can be difficult to focus your public works content on your website. As a result, many city websites cover a broad range of topics that confuse people seeking out public works information.

While your public works pages may include utilities, parking enforcement, or some overlap with planning and development content, we’re going to use this post to address content that assumes you’re communicating about soon to start or in progress public works projects. However, our first tip will remind you of the importance of deciding what is and isn’t public works content, and how you will present that content to citizens.

  1. Organize and define public works content consistently. There are no rules as to what you define as public works content. For example, the City of Riverside, California includes everything from parking citations to trash and recycling, while the City of Austin, Texas focuses specifically on public improvement projects. We recommend defining what you believe public works includes, sticking to it, and not confusing it with other sections like public safety or planning and development. It’s okay to link back and forth between different sections of your website (such as providing links to your municipal court page for parking citations) but the organization of your public works information should be well-defined and consistent.
  2. Provide rationale and a plan for public works projects. Especially for long-term public works projects, providing some background, rationale, and a plan for the project helps your city with transparency and communicating that you are wisely using tax dollars. For example, the City of Austin does a great job outlining the project plan for the Elisabet Ney Museum. Their content includes notes about the museum’s historical landmark status, funding information, what’s going to happen, and when public meetings will be held. It’s clear that the city will keep citizens informed along the way as the project progresses, and the rationale for the renovations is clear.
  3. Elisabet Ney Museum Restoration Project Timeline

  4. Share updates about interruptions, detours, and inconveniences. Public works projects may affect roads, building access, or other public spaces for long periods of time. Providing news and updates about road closures, detours, alternate parking, directions to temporary building and office locations, and other inconveniences can be extraordinarily helpful to citizens and also serves as good public relations for public works. For example, the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts provides updated information about each project and lets citizens know how long a particular project might inconvenience them.
  5. Cambridge Public Works

  6. Emphasize the public benefits that await. Especially when a project has been going on for a long time, it’s easy to lose sight of why you began the project in the first place. As you provide updates, also keep the background, rationale, and benefits front and center. Help citizens visualize what awaits by providing pictures or illustrations of how a final building or roadway project will look. If it’s more intangible (like a stormwater or sewer project), reinforce what problems will be solved and how a citizen’s life will be better after the project.
  7. Be clear about funding details. How much did the project cost? How was it funded? These two questions are very important when detailing public works projects on your city website. Citizens will always have these questions in mind, no matter what else they have come to look at on your public works page. The City of Urbana, Illinois does an excellent job of providing a total list of projects that includes estimated costs along with background and updates. For sensitive projects or if you’re doing many projects at once, it helps if taxpayers know if certain projects are funded by alternative sources or if they are coming straight from the city budget.

For short-term projects or simple ongoing maintenance and repairs, many of the above tips apply on a smaller scale but you can also apply some of our customer service tips from previous blog posts about city website content. Overall, it really helps if you decide what content public works includes and stay consistent with that focus. If your citizens seem better helped by calling the information something different (since many people don’t tend to use the phrase “public works”), it’s perfectly valid to explore ways of organizing and presenting your public works content in language that your citizens use.

To talk about public works website content in more detail, please contact us.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Nathan Eisner, CMO

As we’ve grown accustomed to email over the years, one of the ongoing struggles has been the user’s desire to keep all of their emails versus the reality of hitting the limits of storage space. This has traditionally been a real problem for cities. With tight budgets, cities often needed to cap email storage space at a certain limit. That meant deleting emails to make sure cities had enough space for new and incoming emails.

Not today. As this infographic shows, the price of storage - including email storage - has dropped to ridiculously low levels. It’s not unusual for a modern cloud email system to provide about 50GB of storage for businesses. That’s enough storage for employees to pretty much save every email.

Cities need to take advantage of cloud email’s extremely cheap storage not only for the user benefits but also because there will no longer be any legal reason to delete important emails. For example, the City of San Diego had an email deletion policy when they were using their more obsolete email systems with limited storage space. The public is in an uproar now and wants the city to keep all important emails. The city has no choice but to agree with the public because the email storage technology now exists to do it.

To get a glimpse of the many email storage problems that go away with cloud email, here’s a sampling of some common problems that you probably struggle with if you have an outdated email system.

  1. No more deleting emails because you’ve run out of space. First, this is an annoying problem on an individual employee level. When employees keep hitting the limits of their storage space, that means they need to focus attention on deleting and archiving email on a regular basis instead of on their work. On a city-wide level, forcing people to delete and archive emails is a tough, brutal policy to enforce. With cloud email storage, that problem simply goes away. Everyone has enough space, they can keep everything, and they can search through emails for information they need.
  2. No more failing to send large documents because they are too big. While you’ll still run into limits (especially for impractical things like trying to send 10 videos or 100 photos in an email), reasonable attachment limits go away with cloud email. Employees often have simple needs like sending a large presentation, an audio file, or a zip file with some photos. Many outdated email programs can barely handle sending any file with a significant graphic or visual non-text component. Cloud email programs can generally handle about 25MB worth of data per email.
  3. No more purchasing increased server space for additional email. Storage space tended to be an upsell for traditional email vendors. Cities inevitably scale up through economic growth, increased staff, and more digital information received and stored through email as technology becomes more demanding. This situation leads to the storage cap seen at a place like the City of San Diego and many other cities. With cloud email, you not only get rid of the need to have onsite servers but you also receive so much space that it is rare that you would run out. That means you can scale up with no problem—and without spending any additional money.
  4. No more deleting archived emails. At cities (or any business), it’s fair to say that you never know when you might need certain information. Usually, laws dictate that information over 5, 7, or 10 years old can usually be deleted without much harm. But it’s not unusual - especially in government - for people to need access to a name, file, or information sent via email many years ago. With cloud email, all of your email history is always there. Having your email archive always available in a government setting protects you if certain information is requested.
  5. No more public furor over deleted emails. Government openness and transparency is a huge issue for citizens. In San Diego, when citizens caught wind that emails over one year old were being deleted because of (now arbitrary) storage costs, an advocacy group filed a lawsuit. With storage space so cheap and many cloud email solutions available, deleting emails is becoming not only unnecessary but legally dangerous. Switching to cloud email ensures that you are strengthening your ability to respond to open records requests and projecting the image of retaining - not deleting - public records that may be useful to review in the future.

Cities with aging on-premise email solutions or “discount” email software provided by their local Internet Service Provider are going to become less scalable and more untenable in the future. Since government is getting pressured by both citizens and the law to switch to the cloud for transparency, security, and budget purposes, now is a good time to explore cloud email. It will help eliminate many of the problems listed above and also possibly reduce your email budget by a significant amount.

To talk about cloud email in more detail, please contact us.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014
John Miller, Senior Consultant

With so many security threats taking place in cyberspace through the exchange of bits and bytes, it’s easy to overlook the physical side of information security. While viruses, phishing, and hacking into servers all take place in “virtual” reality, many serious threats to information also happen within good old normal reality.

A recent article in SC Magazine is representative of a need for IT professionals to align both information and physical security. Employees and other people with inside access to organizations are the source of many information security breaches, so your physical security needs to complement your information security to provide the best protection against cybercrime.

It’s easy to assess your current physical security state, and the list below may help you identify some gaps at your city.

  1. Are city employees required to always lock or log off their computers? An easy security breach is simply an unauthorized person sitting down at a person’s computer and hunting around for information. It’s easy for a person to sit down at an employee’s computer after hours or while there are lots of distractions during the day. Sensitive files, emails, and other communications can be captured in a few minutes with a thumb drive. Users should get in the habit of locking their computers when away. A good way to enforce this as a policy is with a screensaver that requires a password. When leaving for the day, users should either lock their computer or log off to avoid any unauthorized access.
  2. Are your servers and network equipment locked up? During various network assessments that we’ve performed over many years, we’re always surprised to see a city’s most valuable information sitting on servers in rooms that anyone can access. A disgruntled employee can cause damage to this equipment, and a tech-savvy person with malicious intent can easily hack into a server. If an outsider can wander into this room, you’re placing your most valuable information at high risk. Your servers and network equipment need to be in a locked room with access restricted to a few key people. And just like with people’s computers, the server should never be left logged in and unattended. Make sure only a few key people (preferably IT staff or a trusted vendor) have login access to a server.
  3. Is your storage media locked up? If you use storage media such as external hard drives or backup tapes, you need to make sure these items are locked up similar to servers or network equipment. This information can be easily overlooked because “it’s just a backup copy” and seems like it’s not as important as the primary copy of any information. However, if somebody has bad intentions, external hard drives and backup tapes are two of the most likely items to be stolen. These items are gold mines for thieves who want access to sensitive city information. They’re easy to steal by popping into a briefcase, bag, or pocket. These items should always be locked up when not in use, and never leave them unattended.
  4. Do city employees write down passwords and leave them in view on their desks? Who needs to break into a computer when the password is right there on an employee’s desk? A few years ago, a tech research company in California performed a study in which they sent out some interns to office buildings in the area. The interns tried to guess user passwords based on what they found at the user’s desk. The study found that 1 out of 3 people had written down their password somewhere on their desk. As if this wasn’t a huge enough security risk, the percentage of passwords they were able to figure out increased to almost 50% by looking around the user’s desk and trying simple things such as children’s names, pet names, college mascots, and sports team names. Your password policy needs to include not only strong passwords (with uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols) but also require that employees never write them down and leave them in a public place. (And yes, even a locked office is a public place. Janitorial staff enters the room to clean that office, right?)
  5. Does your city track hardware and network equipment assets? If the question, “How many laptops do you have?” mystifies you, then the discrepancy means that you probably don’t know where some laptops are. We find that many cities simply don’t know how many computers they have (and in some cases, servers) and where that equipment resides. Untrackable equipment means easily stolen equipment. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was recently the subject of a scathing Senate report that stated, "The NRC has had trouble keeping track of its laptop computers, including those which access sensitive information about the nuclear sites the commission regulates." If employees bring their own devices (laptops, tablets, smartphones) and use your network, those assets need to be tracked too. Many of the worst security breaches in government over the past five years have stemmed from a stolen computer.

By reviewing the items above, you can turn them into a checklist to begin assessing the quality of your physical security.

  • All city employees lock their computers when away from their desk.
  • All city employees log off their computers at the end of each day.
  • Servers, network equipment, and storage media are locked up in rooms that only authorized personnel can access.
  • City employees use strong passwords and do not write them down in place where other people can see them.
  • IT staff or a trusted vendor tracks hardware and network equipment assets.

Remember, your physical security helps complement your information security. It’s like yin and yang. Make it hard, if not impossible, for a person to access or damage your equipment, and you’ll find that you’ve mitigated many of the risks that lead to most government security breaches.

To talk more about physical and information security, please contact us.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014
Brian Ocfemia, Technical Account Manager

When cities purchase hardware and software, they sometimes look at the maintenance and support fees as “additional” costs. “Additional” becomes “optional,” and cities sometimes pass up on these fees. It’s understandable, especially because we all sometimes feel that vendors are trying to upsell us by charging us extra fees for things we don’t need. In extreme cases, cities occasionally use unlicensed or pirated hardware and software to avoid such extra costs.

However, yearly maintenance and support fees are absolutely essential costs as part of purchasing hardware and software. By not having this support, you risk hardware and software failure that cannot be fixed—or that will only get fixed through an expensive hourly fee. Either way, you’re hurting operations and increasing your risk of unpredictable IT costs.

Here are a few important points to keep in mind about the importance of hardware and software maintenance and support fees.

  1. Hardware and software maintenance and support is different from general IT support. The two are often confused. General IT support provides you with ongoing server and workstation monitoring and maintenance, data backup, helpdesk, and some software oversight for website platforms, document management, and other common city applications. But even if a city has IT staff or a vendor providing this general IT support, hardware and software vendor support contracts are still critical. That’s because a lot of the software applications and hardware provided by these vendors is highly specialized, such as utility billing software. Expecting a general IT support resource to become an expert on a specialized kind of utility billing software is unrealistic. Your general IT support resource will often need to enlist the help of the hardware or software vendor’s tech support to resolve any issues.
  2. Software application support provides you with security patches, upgrades, and additional features. Vendors are always improving their software applications. They patch security holes as hackers become more complex, include upgrades that fix bugs and errors, and also add valuable features. If you don’t have an up-to-date support contract, most software vendors will make you buy the entire software application over again if you want an upgrade. Considering that these maintenance and support contracts are usually 10-25% of the original cost of the application, keeping up that contract is cheaper than buying the software application all over again. If you truly see your software as an ongoing investment, then investing in future patches, upgrades, and additional features helps you maximize that investment.
  3. Hardware maintenance and support helps cover the cost of expensive parts. Just like when your car breaks down, hardware failure is ugly if you’re not financially covered. Take advantage of hardware maintenance and support contracts that cover the cost of expensive replacement parts. Typically, these maintenance and support contracts will cover the cost of parts for at least a certain amount of time (such as 1 or 2 years). The time, energy, and costs needed to find a replacement part on your own is almost always enough to encourage people to sign a hardware support contract.
  4. Support agreements give you customer service priority. If something goes wrong with your hardware or software and you don’t have a support agreement, it’s harder to get someone on the phone to help you with your problem. Even your IT staff or vendor can’t speed up the process. You’ll waste both time and money. That’s more time to resolve your problem for a high billable rate—the worst of both worlds. That’s because hardware and software vendors give priority support to their customers who pay for maintenance and support agreements. Those agreements usually mention a response and resolution time. When a problem arises with mission-critical hardware or software, a support agreement ensures the fastest possible resolution.
  5. Benefits, perks, and personalized service. Often, a hardware or software vendor will be so protective and support-oriented toward their own product that they will go above and beyond to ensure it stays running the way they like it. That means they may send people to install the hardware or software, provide onsite support and training, and even back up your data. This kind of personalized support will usually be included in the agreement and it can be extraordinarily helpful for your general IT support staff or vendor to have people sent by the hardware or software vendor to personally help with particular maintenance, installation, or IT support issues.

In other words, you want to pay for the hardware and software maintenance and support agreements. True, it can seem hurtful to your budget—10-25% per year of the original purchase price. But if you accept that as part of the price of hardware and software, the investment makes sense in order to ensure that your hardware and software stays optimal and up-to-date.

Of course, cloud software can eliminate many of these problems by removing the need for hardware and reducing your overall software costs. But since some hardware and software is not yet in the cloud, we highly recommend that you continue to follow the advice above to make sure you are getting the most out of any hardware and software investments that you must purchase for onsite use.

To talk more about hardware and software maintenance and support costs, please contact us.

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