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CitySmart Blog

Thursday, January 24, 2013
Dave Mims, CEO

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.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Clint Nelms, COO

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.

  1. Encryption While encryption is very complex, what you need to focus on is email encryption in transit – meaning that the email you send from your desktop or laptop (for example, from Microsoft Outlook) to your server is encrypted. Microsoft, as just one example, automatically encrypts your email when you use their Office 365 cloud services. This level of encryption ensures that most common hackers or eavesdroppers cannot see your message.

    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.

  2. Antispam There are still too many stories of email hacking occurring when people are tricked by spam and phishing attacks. When email security is rigorously set up, you develop a proactively blocked and safe sender email list over time. We recommend that you apply antispam harshly. Software is available where you can look at your spam on a separate server and see if valid emails are getting caught in the spam filter. Then, you decide to let them through – instead of having to delete spam after it already gets to your inbox.

    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.

  3. Antivirus You are probably sick of hearing about needing antivirus as part of your email security, but what you might not have heard of is “multi-engine scanning.” If you’re using a simple antivirus solution (either free or low cost), it’s probably only single-engine scanning. That means the software is not only going to take a long time to scan for viruses, but it’s also only relying on one antivirus company’s database of viruses.

    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.

Friday, January 18, 2013
Nathan Eisner, Network Manager

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.

  1. Your phone equipment is separate from a phone line. Many people still conflate phone lines with the actual phone itself. Phones are equipment—the hardware that allows you to communicate. The phone line is what’s used to transmit the voice communication to the phone. When you think about phone equipment in the same bucket as phone lines, it’s easy for phone vendors to sell you fancy equipment with lots of buttons and features. That’s meant to distract you from paying attention to the most important piece – the phone LINE. Let’s set the phone equipment aside for now. That’s easily purchased or leased. Instead, you need to pay attention to your phone line.
  2. VoIP saves you money by using your existing Internet connection as a phone line, instead of paying for a dedicated traditional phone line. Much of the cost related to a telecom contract is in paying for the dedicated phone lines owned by telecom companies (such as AT&T). However, most cities have gotten access to high-speed Internet bandwidth. VoIP uses your existing high-speed Internet connection as the phone line. So, since you’re already paying for that Internet bandwidth, the cost of your phone services can be reduced because you are not paying for a dedicated phone line anymore.
  3. You won’t notice a difference switching to VoIP since it works the same as a regular phone line. While the underlying technology might be different from a traditional phone line, you will not notice a difference in your voice communication. It will be the same quality, and you won’t have to do anything differently to communicate. You’ll still use a normal phone device (by purchasing or leasing phone equipment with all of the business features you’ll need) and the sound has achieved comparable quality compared with traditional phone lines. As long as you have good Internet bandwidth, you will notice no dip in voice quality.
  4. VoIP makes it easy to add or delete users, anywhere, anytime. Because VoIP is Internet-based and much easier to manage than traditional phone lines and hardware, you can easily add or delete people depending on when staff leaves or joins the city. With most traditional phone systems, it’s a hassle to add or delete users and there are often fees involved. For example, it’s often expensive to add traditional phone lines for people who work out of the office (either in a remote location or from home). With VoIP, it’s just a matter of adding another user. The technology makes managing your phone users very simple and scalable.
  5. You can keep your phone numbers. You can still use the same phone numbers you already have because of Local Number Portability. That means that switching over to VoIP will be a seamless process for your staff and citizens. People won’t notice any change in phone numbers or how they contact the city. From the outside, they won’t even know you switched to VoIP.
  6. Not only will you still have the same phone features you’re used to, but they will often be cheaper or included for free. Traditional phone vendors make extra money when you want extra features, but many VoIP vendors throw in extension dialing, call transfer/forwarding, and basic conference call functions (like 3-way calling) for free. Plus, you get features that traditional phone lines cannot provide such as voice mail going straight to your email inbox as an audio file. That means people can check voicemail from anywhere, as long as they have access to their email.
  7. You will be surprised when you perform an audit of your phone lines and Internet connection. An audit often shows you ways that VoIP will save you money and leverage new features without upgrades or changes. The audit will also point out phone numbers that should still remain on a traditional (analog) phone line such as fax, alarm, or public safety numbers.

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.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Clint Nelms, COO

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.

  1. If a disaster happens, how would you run your city? Assume the worst has happened, and then imagine that scenario. Where will you meet? What will you need to do? These are business processes you must define to help figure out how the city will run when City Hall might be destroyed or key staff are unable to perform their jobs. Many cities designate one or more emergency sites, define roles and multiple people who may fill them, and outline what needs to happen immediately after the disaster, in the first few days after the disaster, and then week by week until the city is fully operational again.
  2. How is your hardware, equipment, and data backed up? The best disaster recovery planning has your technology up and running within 24-48 hours. You should understand your network thoroughly, how it will be replaced if it’s destroyed, and how your data will be restored. Many solutions exist in which brand new servers can be shipped within a few days, with nearly all of your data intact. Having access to your information is important if you are going to start helping citizens as soon as possible after the disaster.
  3. What can you still do while power and Internet is out? Even though you may have an excellent data backup and disaster recovery plan, it’s useless if power and Internet is out. If you know that your city will absolutely need to be up and running—with power—then think about generators or hiring a company to help provide power, phone service, wireless Internet, and hardware immediately. If you are able to still effectively run city operations without power or Internet for a while, then draw on the past. How has your city previously handled disasters? How have other similar or nearby cities successfully handled disasters? Model your plan based on what you or other similar cities have done when they lacked power for days or weeks.
  4. What services and data will you need immediately, and what can wait? Some data is more important than other data, and thinking about this allows you to prioritize how you’ll recover from your disaster. For example, 911 services might need a high-end disaster recovery plan while your parks and recreation data might be all right if it is down for a few weeks. Discuss your priorities with key city staff based upon your disaster scenarios. Then plan appropriate disaster recovery solutions for each area where you will need the data up and running sooner or later.
  5. What do your vendors provide concerning disaster recovery in their support agreements? Many times, cities only realize what vendors can and can’t do in a disaster until it’s too late. In your disaster recovery planning, make sure you assess your vendor support agreements, consolidate and summarize what vendors provide in case of disaster, and look for gaps. If a key piece of disaster recovery is missing from a specific system or piece of software, then you might want to talk to the vendor about this issue. If they cannot provide adequate disaster recovery, then you might want to look at other vendors. If they do provide great disaster recovery as part of their support, then note that in your 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.

Thursday, January 10, 2013
John Miller, Network Infrastructure Manager

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.

  • Who’s editing it right now?
  • What’s the latest version?
  • Where’s the document? I can’t find it in my email.
  • Oh no, I’ve got to bug them again about the deadline.
  • Did the city manager review it yet? I’m not sure.

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.

  1. Centralized storage and distribution of documents. Instead of documents residing on everyone’s computers or in email, you create a document and place it into a central repository where all authorized people can view it. You can still create a document in whatever software you prefer (e.g. Microsoft Word) on your desktop or laptop. When it comes time to share it, you upload it into a library of files where it’s easy for others to access. Document management should also help you with tagging the files appropriately so that they are easily searchable.
  2. Centralized communication with people about documents. While you may be used to email, communicating within the document management system centralizes your communications around a specific document. You can still get email notifications, but it’s important that you can easily read through specific discussions about a particular document within the document management system without having to search through your email.
  3. Authorized access for both internal and external teams. Internally, you obviously don’t want every person at your city to be able to access a document. At the same time, you may want an outside vendor or contractor to have access to a particular document. A document management solution should allow you to precisely set permissions so that only people authorized to view and edit the document have access. That way, it’s easy to collaborate with a vendor or contractor without having your IT team create a separate username or login to your system.
  4. Friendly notifications about documents. Depending on how often you want to be notified, document management systems can let you know about updates to documents in real-time or just summarize activity daily or weekly. If you’re working closely on a document, it may help to be notified about changes as they occur. If you’re the city manager or a department head who just wants to stay notified about ongoing progress without cluttering up your email, a daily or weekly summary of activity may work fine. This feature helps prevent you from being cc’d on endless amounts of emails about document edits that you don’t need to respond to.
  5. Structured workflow. When you work on documents manually, there is a higher likelihood of error. You might miss a key element of the document, name it incorrectly, or forget to include a reviewer. By building in a structured workflow into your document management system, you can make sure that certain steps are always followed. That may include ensuring that the document is reviewed by specific people, contains specific pieces of content, and gets official approval before it’s published or delivered. This ensures that a document always goes out with the highest quality standards.
  6. Document versioning. This is probably one of the favorite aspects of a document management system for many people. With document versioning, a document can only be checked out to one person at a time. This prevents the problem of two or more people editing a document at the same time. Two people accidentally editing the same document is probably one of the biggest time wasters in an organization. Plus, with document versioning, you can go back to previous versions of a document in case you need to see what it looked like earlier or even revert to a previous version.

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.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Dave Mims, CEO

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.

  • Design and Development For very large cities with complicated services and a need to present a high-end public face in front of millions of people, a significant investment in design might be appropriate. But for most small cities, you do not need a high-end custom designed website. Doing that opens up two risks. First, you might be paying way too much, even if the website looks great. Second, if you’re having someone custom design your website because they are the lowest price, you often get what you pay for. We’ve seen many cases where someone with limited skills cobbles together something that ends up embarrassing the city. Instead, there are many customizable and elegant design templates that look great, fit city needs, and—best of all—cost very little.
  • Hosting Unless your website has very high demands (like thousands of people per day accessing services) or uses data intensively, your hosting options should run in the hundreds of dollars per month. Hosting fees have come down significantly, and there are many options such as shared hosting (where you share a server with other websites) or the cloud (where world-class vendors will host your website at a low cost) that will bring your costs down. If you’re still maintaining a dedicated website server (or servers) in-house or paying thousands of dollars for data center website hosting, you may want to look at other hosting options.
  • Putting Content Onto the Website We cannot emphasize this enough—you should be able to put content onto your own website. For no extra fees. The days of having a webmaster or vendor putting content onto your website are long over. Most modern websites have easy-to-use ways to add, delete, and edit content. If you still have someone doing this for you, or it’s extremely difficult to put content onto your website, then you need to look at some different options.
  • Licenses and Upgrades Many vendors want you to believe their website and related services are very special—so special that you need to pay a lot of money for licenses and upgrades. That’s where most website vendors will really eat into your budget. Newer websites are based on a subscription model. After the setup, you should be able to turn on the website and pay a low monthly fee. If you’re paying a large upfront fee and steep annual licensing costs, there are more affordable options you need to look at.
  • Bells and Whistles So your website has the capability to share news out to hundreds of social media platforms, magnificent forum features that can handle dozens of discussion groups, and a multimedia section where you can upload videos, podcasts, and photo albums. But...do you really need all of these features? Usually, cities have been sold expensive websites where a lot of features sounded good at the time but later did not meet business needs. If you don’t need it, why pay for it? There are many website options that stick to basics and can be customized or scaled up to meet exactly the needs of your city.

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.

Friday, January 4, 2013
Clint Nelms, COO

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.

Encryption 101

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:

  • Data Backup The most overlooked area for encryption is data backup. You may do a good job securing your hardware and devices. But if you use manual backup such as tape, hard drives, thumb drives, or disks, these storage devices are often unencrypted. This makes it easy for someone to steal the data. With data backup, encryption can be easily set up and the standards are so high that it becomes nearly impossible to steal that backed up data. That means if somehow someone steals your backed up data, it’s worthless if that person does not have the encryption key.
  • Workstations One of the easiest ways for people to steal information is simply by accessing someone’s workstation. This can be their desktop at the office or a stolen laptop. With encryption, the authorized user has to enter a password in order to access anything on the computer. This is different from the usual password you might use to log into your computer. For example, if a hacker cracks your Windows login password or gains access to your hard drive, they can steal your data. With an encryption barrier, data theft becomes a lot less likely.
  • Wireless Unfortunately, we have seen many cities and businesses that might as well have no locks on their doors and just advertise, “Hey! Come steal my data!” What are they doing wrong? They have unencrypted, unsecured wireless connections. Use an encrypted wireless configuration to ensure that your wireless network traffic is encrypted on your network.
  • Mobile (Smartphones and Tablets) People often secure their workstations and wireless connections but forget about the most obvious and frequent stolen hardware—your smartphone. Smartphones have evolved so quickly that they now contain your most sensitive private and business information—financial information, email, passwords, contacts, etc. While mobile encryption is not yet as good as we’d like, there are ways to encrypt data based on certain settings inside your smartphone and from various apps on the market such as using a pin code or password, remotely and securely wiping your phone of all data if it is stolen, and encrypting your content if your smartphone or tablet supports 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.

Monday, December 31, 2012
Dave Mims, CEO

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:

  • Mitigate the risk of data loss through onsite and offsite server backups
  • Ensure a highly available and dependable email system
  • Eliminate the need to purchase more servers
  • Reduce support fees by several thousand dollars annually

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.

About Sophicity

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.

Thursday, December 20, 2012
Dave Mims, CEO

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.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Nathan Eisner, Network Manager

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.

  1. Try to set up online payments for all city services requiring payment. It’s okay to start off with a pilot test (e.g. property taxes or parking ticket payments). But eventually you will want to place all (or nearly all) payment-related services online. You don’t want people who have paid property taxes online wondering why they can’t pay their parking ticket. If you’re investing in online payments, you might as well provide online payments for all city services.
  2. Provide a variety of payment options. People have many different needs. Your citizens represent a range of income levels and financial sophistication. Can they pay by check, money order, and credit card? Are there plenty of credit card options? Is it easy to route the money from their checking account? Citizens should not be prevented from paying online because a common payment feature isn’t available. Provide options.
  3. Provide a clear record of the transaction. There should be multiple ways to confirm a payment and create a record for a citizen. Again, provide options. Some people like to print out the record, some like an email notification, and some even like for the city to mail them a paper record. The worst nightmare, especially for non-technologically savvy citizens, is thinking their payment did not go through because they hit the back button or a screen exited them without any clear confirmation.
  4. Provide customer support and prompt service. No matter how good your online payment system, there will be problems. We’ve all had that experience where something goes wrong online and we immediately jump on the phone. Your citizens are no different. Make sure there is an easy way for them to troubleshoot basic problems, a visible phone number to call or an email address to send a support request, and people staffed to properly handle problems. As long as citizens know that a friendly, knowledgeable person is there to help when something goes wrong, you’ll alleviate most customer dissatisfaction.

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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