In a recent blog post, we told cities that they should try to get online payments set up for all city services where payment is required. However, some cities might have difficulty if they have never used online payments before. Where to start? What services will really be useful to citizens? How do you make the business case?
If you are wondering where to start with online payments, there are a few common services that are a must. Based on our common experiences with cities, we’ve prioritized the list down to five and explained why it is important to get these online payment services up and running as soon as possible.
Traffic and Parking Tickets—Not only are these types of fines common, but they also affect people who do not live in your city. We hear from public safety that out-of-towners are notorious for not paying traffic and parking fines, but cities that make it a hassle through paper-based payments place unnecessary obstacles in the way of those people to pay their fines. By making it easy to pay traffic and parking fines online, that means more revenue for the city—quicker.
Utilities—If your city offers utility services, you make it easier on citizens and businesses to pay online and set up recurring payments. Utility competition exists and there are plenty of companies who would love to make money off your citizens and businesses. If city utilities lag behind in providing online payments, it’s all the more reason for a commercial company to swoop in and provide better service. You want that revenue, right? Then make it easy for citizens to pay their utility bills.
Property Taxes—Setting up online property tax payments might even be better for cities than the convenience provided to citizens. The main reason is that it takes the burden off city staff when property tax deadlines hit. Without online property tax payments, city hall foot traffic drastically increases when citizens come in to make payments and ask questions. Your mailroom gets hit with a flood of envelopes, increasing the risk of losing and misplacing paper payments. Providing a way to pay property taxes online reduces foot traffic, decreases error, and allows city staff to focus on helping citizens who have unusual, particular problems.
Business Licenses—Cities are competing for business every day. By making a city business-friendly, you open it up to downtown development, investment, and jobs. One small but important element is to make paying for a business license as simple as possible. Business owners should have the option to pay online for both general and specialized licenses (e.g. alcohol, taxi cab, pawnbroker, etc.). It’s hard enough to start or grow a business, so you want to make paying for licenses the least of a business’s worries in your city.
Permits—Paying for permits is potentially an annoying prospect for citizens who want to generate some kind of business or community activity in your city. Perhaps they want to put up a banner, put on a garage sale, or construct a building. Paying for permits online is an easy way for citizens to comply with the law in an effortless fashion. Otherwise, you’ll be hearing complaints at city council meetings or over the phone about difficulties in paying for and acquiring permits. An online option to pay for permits signals that you’re a citizen-friendly city that encourages community activity and participation.
By providing online payments for these basic services, you make it easy to collect revenue with as little city staff overhead as possible. Some people will still like to pay by mail, phone, or in person, but since more and more people are becoming used to paying online you will do your citizens a great service by providing this option. When it comes to collecting revenue, why not make it as quick and easy as possible?
If you’d like to talk about online payments in more detail, contact us.
With so many email accounts getting hacked from the highest levels of government to the smallest cities, it might seem easier to throw up your hands and just assume that all email is vulnerable. Looking at the worst-case email hacking scenarios, often conducted by the world’s best cybercriminals, you might think, “How will I prevent something like that from happening to my small city?”
However, those worst-case scenarios are rare. More commonly, mediocre to below-average hackers from all over the world are always trying to hack your email. That is why you cannot give up.
Your email contains some of your most sensitive city information. Private correspondence about personnel, money, and legal matters needs to be kept private (or accessible only through open records laws). But email also seems like the loosest, least secure information in a city. (Usually) everyone has email, whether it’s on laptops, mobile devices, or desktops at home. That opens up many opportunities for risk.
With a set of simple best practices, you can secure your email and even increase the security depending on message sensitivity. Primarily, it helps to focus on three basic areas to make sure your email is secure.
Unfortunately, many cities use Post Office Protocol (POP) versions of email, which is not encrypted. While that kind of email might be sufficient for personal use, it’s not a high enough standard for cities. If you are currently using POP mail, then you need to consider upgrading in order to ensure appropriate email encryption for your city.
We advocate the goal (following in the steps of Google and Microsoft) of traditional spam (such as Viagra emails or Nigerian money scams) never even reaching your spam folder. Ultimately, your spam folder should only contain things like unwanted newsletters, mass emails from businesses, and other unnecessary messages – with maybe only occasionally some traditional spam getting through. If your spam folder still looks dangerous and unmanageable, or if you still get spam in your inbox, your email security is failing you.
Cities need an enterprise antivirus solution because the risks are too large if a virus hits. That means scanning faster and more thoroughly using different antivirus engines. For example, Microsoft Forefront uses a proprietary engine along with Authentium, Kaspersky, Norman, and VirusBuster. Along with the constant monitoring, proactive prevention, and better virus alerts, your email security system will not even let email messages through that have viruses.
Too many email programs are still so loosely secured that viruses get through and people click on them. With city government, you cannot take that risk. A good enterprise antivirus program easily integrates with your email, and it stops virus-ridden emails at the server level so that they never even get to the user.
Correctly set up, your email security can be powerful and ward off most hacking attempts. If you’d like to discuss email security in more detail, please contact us.
One of the best parts of our job is to help cities save money. One element of technology that always seems to be a great place to start is the city’s phone system. Cities are usually paying too much for their phones, clinging onto long-term contracts where telecom vendors are squeezing every last drop out of a city’s budget.
Since phone systems are quite complicated, especially with the advent of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), it might be helpful to look at VoIP more closely in terms of financial savings. It’s easy to misunderstand what VoIP is. Traditionally, cities often think of everything phone-related as “the phone system,” but there are many parts and pieces where you need to examine where you might be losing money to traditional telecom vendors.
Considering VoIP is an excellent way to challenge your existing phone system contracts and see if you can find some long-term cost savings.
As you can see, switching to VoIP not only replicates the phone system you’re already used to, but you have the potential to add new features, scale up and down easily, and—most importantly—save thousands of dollars per year. Phone systems have advanced greatly over the past 10 years. At this point, those advances mean savings to your city.
If you’d like to talk about switching to VoIP or assessing your telecom budget, please contact us.
We’ve talked about disaster recovery in the past, but one interesting aspect to note is that many cities often think about disaster in a mundane way—losing a document, a server crashing, or getting a virus. But true disaster recovery means Hurricane Sandy-level disaster. It means asking, “Who is still alive?” And depending on your answer, asking “How will I run the city at a time when citizens need us most?”
There are some important questions you must answer to build a true disaster recovery plan that go beyond merely wondering what happens if you lose a Microsoft Word file. These are questions that transcend but also include technology, since the strength of your technology will help strengthen your overall disaster recovery plan.
Overall, you want to plan. Even if the plan is imperfect, it at least gets the process started. The questions that are raised are very important, since the answers may one day save lives and help citizens in case the worst happens. By building your plan, assessing your technology and data backup, and prioritizing your recovery plan, you are on the right track toward creating a useful contingency plan that can immediately go into action when needed.
If you’d like to discuss disaster recovery in more detail, please contact us.
When you collaborate with multiple people on a document, do you feel like you waste too much time? You work hard creating the document and then share it with people via email. Then...the fun begins.
That pile of confusion increases the more people are involved. That is why document management through email is often disastrous. You always start out trying to collaborate with good intentions, but chaos eventually prevails. True, you’ll get the document completed, but there is so much wasted time (and money) and too much frustration.
It’s not your fault. Any complex situation is hard to manage once you start to involve multiple people and multiple documents. A good document management solution helps you turn that natural chaos into order.
And by saving time, you are saving money—those unproductive hours that go down the drain when you’re wasting time chasing down documents. Here’s how document management can help your collaboration efforts.
As you can see, a document management system introduces several features that make collaboration a great deal easier versus manually collaborating through email. You will save time, save money, and reduce frustration. Plus, you’ll be able to work much better with teams both internally and externally. It’s a win-win-win for all!
If you’d like to discuss document management collaboration in more detail, please contact us.
As I’ve met with hundreds of cities over the past few years, I’ve been stunned that so many have paid on average about $15,000 to $20,000 for a website (sometimes way more, and sometimes a little less). True, every city situation is different and some larger cities may need enhanced capabilities that require complex website design and development, but for most small to medium-sized cities it’s safe to say that $15,000 is just too much.
Advances in technology and Internet functionality have lowered the costs of what used to make websites so expensive. Let’s go through each part and piece of a website and see if you’re paying too much. By examining each piece of your website, you might find some opportunities to save significant money.
A small- to medium-sized city just doesn’t need excessive website design and development, hosting, or features. You just need a website for a low cost that does what you need. You should only be paying hundreds or low thousands per month. Anything significantly more, and you’re most likely losing money.
If you want to talk about your website needs, please contact us.
Recently, the state of South Carolina suffered a data breach in which 3.6 million records were leaked. They weren’t just any records—they were records from the Department of Revenue. Even worse, this highly sensitive information (including social security numbers) was not encrypted.
The article states:
There has been no explanation as to why the state did not encrypt its data, although Gov. Haley did state that encrypting data is complicated and cumbersome. The state has now begun a two to three month project to encrypt revenue department data.
For government data of this magnitude, there is no excuse for not encrypting it. The “complicated and cumbersome” element strikes us as an excuse. So that you don’t get caught with a similar problem, and to demystify the complexity surrounding encryption, here is what you need to know—and do—to encrypt your information.
While the technology of encryption might be complex, the goal is simple. No matter who takes your data, they will not be able to read or access it. Only authorized users can access your data. A combination of passwords and mathematics ensure that the encryption is so complex that it is all but impossible to crack.
Here are the scenarios where you need to worry most about encryption:
If you are a business that does not deal in sensitive information, it’s one thing to take a risk with your data. But if you are a city, there is no excuse. Taxpayers trust you with their financial information, credit card information, social security numbers, and other sensitive information. A disgruntled employee, wireless snooper, or hacker should not be able to easily access that data. Your IT staff or vendor should be able to set up encryption in a reasonable amount of time and for a relatively low cost. As you can see with South Carolina, the upfront investment is worth it.
If you want to talk more about encryption, please contact us.
GMA helps city stabilize data backup, disaster recovery and email
Oxford, Georgia is a tight-knit community located in the heart of the state. City officials, staff, and police work hard to serve the town’s 2,134 residents, including a large student population attending Oxford College of Emory University.
While Oxford College offers the full technological amenities of a world-class university and Oxford residents enjoy high-speed broadband, the city found its IT services out of date and unstable. Concerned with the stability and security of their email, server hosting and data backup, city officials needed to upgrade and modernize their technology.
However, the potential high cost of upgrading the city’s technology prevented Oxford city leaders from moving forward. In their technology assessment, expenses associated with hardware and software upgrades exceeded the city’s IT budget.
Oxford 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.
“IT in a Box” helped Oxford:
Oxford saved $46,812 (or 72 percent) of the costs typically spent modernizing a city network of their environment and size. “IT in a Box” helped Oxford stabilize its technology and create a predictable IT budget.
“IT in a Box has helped Oxford streamline our IT issues into one source, one call for multiple needs. They provide elite and dependable customer service staff with 7 days a week coverage.” – City Clerk Lauran Willis
If you're interested in learning more, contact us about IT in a Box.
Print-friendly version of the Oxford, Georgia IT in a Box case study.
Sophicity is an IT services and consulting 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 storage, email, document management, Microsoft Office for desktops, server and desktop management, vendor management, and a seven-day a week helpdesk. Read more about IT in a Box.
From my experience, when cities (or any organization) deal with their technology they tend to jump right into technical specifications or complex analyses. But as fascinating as technology can be, you won’t solve your technology problems by focusing on…technology.
Am I contradicting myself? Strangely no. Over the years, I’ve learned that to make technology succeed, people-focused principles are probably more important than technical details. And as I network with experienced technology leaders who have been in the business for 20+ years, I find they also emphasize these people-focused principles in their work.
I was inspired to write this post after talking to a senior IT leader who has decades of experience in both the private sector and local government. At the heart of most technology issues are people issues. But if you avoid the following mistakes, you will create the foundation you need to really benefit from technology.
Mistake #1: Fail to listen. Most people move ahead gung-ho with technology initiatives. Out of frustration, people sometimes feel they must act boldly to resolve productivity issues (such as slow servers or a hard-to-use website). But when you don’t talk to the people who will be using the software, the website, the user interface to a system, etc. or to stakeholders whose departments are impacted by the technology, then you are sowing the seeds of failure. An essential part of planning for any technology initiative is thoroughly interviewing and questioning all relevant stakeholders and users. You need their input—first.
Mistake #2: Focus on the product, not the problem. It’s very common for people to get excited about a specific piece of software, a new mobile application, or a redesigned website. Sometimes you see other cities doing something, and you feel you have to do it too. But there are a lot of shiny objects in the world of technology that don’t necessarily solve your problem. Define your problem first. Where are you losing productivity? Where could you save money? What area, if improved, will have a great impact on your city’s services? Use technology to solve a problem, instead of just using technology because others are using it.
Mistake #3: Don’t prepare a business case. While you would think that most cash-strapped cities would keep an eye on the money, we’ve seen that technology is often the hardest budget area to understand. In order to make a decision, many city councils and administrators often sign off on IT budgets, projects, and software without really understanding the return on investment. It may take some time and outside help, but get someone to objectively compare different options, show how you’re currently losing or wasting money, and show how a technology investment positively impacts the business of the city. Technology should never be a leap of faith.
Mistake #4: Throw more money and resources at a technology problem. One of the things that frustrates taxpayers the most when they hear about failed government initiatives is when government makes a bad problem worse by hoping it goes away with more money. Money alone will not solve a problem. You need to understand the root cause of any technology problem, understand options that may solve it, and then ask some hard questions. Do I need to change my infrastructure (versus buying more servers)? Do I need to hire different staff or vendors, or let some go (versus hiring more people)? Often, you’ll find that understanding the root cause of a technology problem also allows you to save money and become more efficient.
Mistake #5: Fail to plan. We’ve walked into many cities where there is no real plan for technology investments. Hardware is kept around until it dies, software is used even if it’s not solving a problem, and citizen services are often behind the times. Technology planning requires budgeting, outlining short-term and long-term needs, and identifying priorities. With planning and regular evaluation, a city can often achieve more productivity and service enhancements than they could if they were just aimlessly plodding along.
While these sound like easy mistakes to avoid, these kinds of flaws often appear as organizations grow larger. It’s easy for teams of people to become disconnected and siloed. Some of the hardest work in a city has to do with communication and getting multiple stakeholders to agree on how to solve problems. Technology is no different. While the technology is fun (and I really enjoy geeking out to technology!), it’s best to make sure you’ve got a people-focused mindset in place to really make technology improve your city.
If you’d like to talk more about your technology communication and planning, please contact us.
Cities are continuing to offer online payments to citizens in record numbers. Pascagoula, Mississippi; Patterson, California; Yakima, Washington; and many other cities are realizing that citizens have come to expect this kind of service. Online payments are no longer a “nice-to-have.” But throwing up an online payment system—any online payment system—isn’t enough to make citizens happy.
Citizens will have expectations once you set up your online payment system. Not meeting these expectations may lead to customer complaint calls which tie up your city staff and cause public frustration expressed toward elected officials. Upfront, it helps to anticipate and address some basic issues to make sure that your online payment system is optimally set up.
In the past, we’ve discussed 10 questions to ask your online payment vendor. In this article, we’re providing more service-oriented technology tips. Not following these tips won’t break your technology, but failing to consider these service features will potentially make your citizens unhappy. Luckily, these are simple service features that you can check off your list when setting up or reevaluating your online payment system.
By taking care of these basic service-oriented issues ahead of time, you’ll eliminate most of the common problems that people experience when paying online. If you’d like to talk about online payments in more detail, please contact us.
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