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Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Dave Mims, President
Over the past few years, we have witnessed many technology support companies take advantage of the tendency for cities to simply pick the cheapest solution. Municipal procurement processes often encourage a “low price” philosophy, but this philosophy is especially damaging when information technology is treated like office supplies or a desk. Many technology vendors know how the game works, so they often submit a vague cheap quote that sounds good on the surface. When technical expertise is lacking, cities time and time again go with the cheapest solution.

It doesn’t take a prophet to predict what will happen 2-3 years down the road: frustration, bad service, and (yes) disaster. Cutting corners in the short-term leads to hemorrhaging money long-term. Not only are taxpayer dollars wasted, but cities do not realize the full ROI and value that information technology should be providing.

Unfortunately, information technology remains one of the most complex and least standardized services. It is often difficult to understand technology, equally compare technology vendors, and adhere to any standards (due to a lack of federal, state, or local regulations concerning technology support). As a result, many cities suffer from aging hardware that slows staff productivity, technology environments that are only fixed when a major disruption occurs (at which point it’s usually too late), information security that is the equivalent of leaving the doors of City Hall unlocked, and lack of data backup and disaster recovery. And cities thought their managed services provider was helping. So how did they end up here?

Asking the Right Questions and Understanding What You’re Getting

Many cities do not have the technical expertise to fully understand what “technology support” entails. Vendors often play up to this lack of understanding, focus solely on price, and get your business. We call this the “bottom feeder” approach. Cities think they’re getting a deal – until they see the bills that come later. Any problem that arises with a “bottom feeder” vendor often leads to a) another bill, and b) a chance for the vendor to upsell you on another product or service.

As you will see below, vendors will present services to you that are misleading and too good to be true. This article explains a set of typical “managed services” features that bottom-feeder vendors provide. I’m sure you’ve heard these claims. Perhaps your current provider even provides these “myths” to you. We ask you to challenge current and potential vendors with these questions. No matter what vendor you choose, understand what you’re getting.

24x7x365 Coverage

Myth: The vendor says they are providing services 24x7x365. That means they are taking care of my technology equipment 24x7x365, and whenever I have a problem I can call someone.

Fact: This is not true unless additional specific help desk support coverage is specified. It is typical for a managed services vendor to install agents on hardware and monitor it 24x7x365. That only means they are monitoring for problems. It does not mean you have access to a person for help 24x7x365.

In most cases, there will be long stretches of time during the week when either a) no human is staffed to cover your technology support, b) the person who is providing support is either the lowest-level technical resource or a non-technical resource, or c) a call center (usually with Tier 1 support somewhere unknown or offshore) will answer your calls 24x7x365. Depending on if any helpdesk hours are bundled into your monthly fee, these calls (and any problem resolution) will cost you money if steps need to be taken to solve a problem.

“Local” People Helping You

Myth: I feel comfortable using a local managed services provider because I trust these local relationships more than an outsourced or offshored model.

Fact: Do you really think your managed services costs are so low without any outsourcing or offshoring taking place? Numerous managed services providers engage your business by way of a local sales representative (e.g. CEO of company, account manager, etc.). However, they are often the only local staff of that company. In order to keep costs very low, these companies have to outsource and (in many cases) use offshore models in order for their companies to provide you cheap 24x7x365 coverage.

In other words, you may not be getting United States-based coverage. If that aspect is important to you, it is useful to know that many vendors are not forward about who and what type of engineers are providing you services. Thus, your level of comfort with a “local” provider is based on a false assumption.

Equipment Monitoring and Maintenance

Myth: The vendor is always monitoring my servers and workstations. That means when they find a problem, they fix it.

Fact: The vendor will certainly monitor and be alerted to any technology issues. However, this does not mean they will fix the problem. (It may just mean they closed another sale!) Automatic maintenance is usually limited only to the basic of basics: patching, removal of temporary files, running spyware scans, collecting data about the health of your hardware, etc. Maintenance does not mean fixing your servers or workstations when critical issues occur. You will be billed extra at a time when your choices are limited.

Conclusion

Below, you will find questions that give you a guideline for interviewing vendors about their services. Remember:

  • They prefer you don’t know what 24x7x365 really means – only that it sounds like it’s covering you all of the time.
  • They prefer you don’t know they are using offshoring to present a cheap solution to you – only that you’re reassured by their local sales presence.
  • They prefer you don’t know how much (or how little) “maintenance” really means – until a disruption occurs and they can start billing you hourly for “unexpected” costs.
Information technology support may be a difficult area to evaluate. The pressures for city administrators to bid out technology support and make a decision as quickly as possible may tempt them to think most vendors are the same. City Councils who are perhaps focused only with cost may simply rubber stamp the lowest cost solution. But the consequences of such decisions will haunt cities later with server and workstation failures, security breaches and viruses run rampant, data loss, and public embarrassment when audits reveal a staggering lack of technology professionalism – and waste of taxpayer dollars.


10 Questions to Ask Technology Support Vendors

  1. Define 24x7x365. What does it exactly mean?
  2. Are the vendor’s engineers working 24x7x365? Are they on shifts? What level of engineer is on these shifts? Can I meet these engineers? Where are they?
  3. Am I calling into a call center? Where is the call center? Trace the route of an issue from the time I call in to the time it’s resolved. What is the resolution time for an issue? How quickly can someone arrive onsite?
  4. Do I get the same type of engineers after hours that I do during normal business hours? Is it an engineer? Are issue resolution times consistent across all coverage hours?
  5. Do the engineers receive background checks?
  6. Who has access to my data and sensitive information such as passwords, user names, etc.?
  7. When an alert is generated, what happens next? Am I notified of the problem? When?
  8. What specifically is monitored? What different equipment is exactly supported? What automated activities are occurring to “maintain” my hardware?
  9. When a piece of hardware fails or has a critical issue, what happens?
  10. Why is my managed services contract so thick?
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Dave Mims, President

Are you still managing project tasks with post-its all around your PC? Are your estimates realistic? Are all team members and project sponsors on the same page? Do you have to crunch the numbers again and again to report status to decision makers? Maybe Microsoft Project’s predecessors give you a headache when running a large project schedule? :)

Check out my presentation at the Southern Municipal Conference IT Spring meeting where I shared and demoed a pretty cool tool that Sophicity is now using called LiquidPlanner. It solves, very well, a few of the pains that we all encounter managing IT projects.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development

Clint Nelms, Network Infrastructure Practice Manager at Sophicity, recently published “Three Reasons Why Cities Should Consider Hosted Email” in the March 2011 issue of Texas Town & City. The magazine is published by the Texas Municipal League and focuses on a variety of contemporary municipal issues. We encourage you to read the complete article and also visit Texas Town & City online.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Clint Nelms, Network Infrastructure Practice Manager

You may have already implemented or considered cloud solutions, especially enticed by the reductions in technology costs. But many people are still concerned about security. “What happens to my data when it’s ‘out there’ in the cloud?”

Here’s Army General Keith Alexander, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency:

“This [cloud] architecture would seem at first glance to be vulnerable to insider threats—indeed, no system that human beings use can be made immune to abuse—but we are convinced the controls and tools that will be built into the cloud will ensure that people cannot see any data beyond what they need for their jobs and will be swiftly identified if they make unauthorized attempts to access data.”

Read the entire article from Forbes.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development


Chris Lagerbloom
City Manager
City of Milton, Georgia

Chris Lagerbloom was appointed as City Manager for the City of Milton in February 2009. He also served as the Director of Public Safety and Interim City Manager for the City of Milton prior to being appointed as the full-time City Manager. During his time with the City of Milton, Lagerbloom coordinated the initial deployment of police and fire services, synchronized and implemented policy and employed a top-notch staff. After moving into the Office of City Manager, he took the lead on moving the City of Milton to performing more services in-house, which represented a cost savings of more than $1.5 million. Before joining the City of Milton, Lagerbloom served as an accomplished public safety executive in various capacities with the City of Alpharetta from 1995 through 2006, working his way up through the ranks from Police Officer to Police Captain.


What are some of the biggest challenges facing Milton?

Like everyone else, our biggest challenge is managing our competing needs with available resources. A down economy has hit us hard during the last couple of years. As a result, probably the biggest challenge we have is adapting our service delivery to this new “normal.” I think dealing with this new reality is a better way to look at our situation, rather than waiting for an economic rebound that may or may not occur at some point in the future.

We’ve looked at how we leverage resources and tried to find ways we can diversify our internal staff, along with partnering with business and other governments external to our organization. We’re figuring out the right balance: what’s essential, and what’s nice to have. That’s a big challenge. We’re also newer than most cities, and we’re still dealing with many challenging first-time issues and items.

How have you been overcoming budget issues?

The down economy has renewed our respect for every dollar. We’ve looked for cost-saving measures and ways to tighten our belts in areas as large as limiting overtime in our Police and Fire departments to something as small as whether we provide coffee services at City Hall. We’ve taken each area and asked, “What is critical? What is the city using the public’s money for? Do I need it to keep the doors open?” If the answer to that last question is no, we’ve tried to limit those expenses. We also celebrate when we tighten expenses and save dollars, even if they’re small.

As we close out our fiscal year 2010, we have a fund balance of $7.5 million out of a total budget of $18 million. That’s a great percentage of revenues over expenditures, which keeps our reserves strong and will allow for additional capital projects to be completed this year. My philosophy of budgeting is to anticipate revenues conservatively and expenditures liberally. We’ve continued to outsource portions of government that we think are right for outsourcing, particularly in our Public Works department. We’ve also done our best not to acquire depreciating assets (e.g. lawn mowers, dump trucks, etc.).

How does technology fit into your overall strategic vision?

We have embraced technology. We recognize there are roles and tasks that technology is replacing the need for a person to do. We try to implement technology solutions when it makes us better at doing what we do. The explosion of social media has also affected us, especially considering the number of citizens with whom we can now connect. Before, we would have not had those relationships. After the January 2011 ice storm, we provided real-time updates to our citizens about what roads Public Works crews were on, when roads opened and other important news. The feedback we received from our citizens was amazing. With their cell phones, they were able to know when we were going to have plows on their road.

How has the city leveraged GIS?

We use GIS in just about every city department. Public Safety uses it for emergency responses. Every fire hydrant in Milton is plotted with a GIS layer. We’re documenting and inventorying our city infrastructure. Community Development uses GIS for zoning and land use. Finance uses it for tax parcel IDs and acreage. It is truly used across the city.

We currently don’t have a GIS program in which somebody could go to our website and access public GIS data. They can do that at the county level, but Milton’s data is more accurate because we only have to maintain it for a small portion of the county.

We even leveraged GIS as we were going through our initial ISO rating for the fire department. Inside the cockpit of our fire trucks, our firefighters can pull up what appears to be a satellite image of the location to which they are responding. On the satellite image, they can click on the building and it automatically pulls up building floor plans, hydrant connections and other things that make fire operations smoother, right on their computer.

How do you connect with and learn from other municipalities?

In North Fulton county, we probably have one of the strongest groups of available city and county managers and administrators with whom I’ve ever had the opportunity to work. I can call any of our partner cities for help, and I am lucky to have some pretty experienced managers in this area. As I was contemplating taking this position, one of them told me that if I’m not afraid to ask for help, they were not going to let me fail. That was a powerful statement – somebody who has been in the city manager business for 30 years telling me its okay not to know everything. I rely upon these men and women tremendously.

Networking is also important and one of the most critical things people can do to stay successful. You don’t have to be an expert in everything. You just have to know an expert. I stay involved in the Georgia City/County Managers Association, and I’m a member of ICMA. I’ve had the privilege of being selected this year for ICMA’s leadership class of 2012. Fifteen people from across the United States and Canada were selected. The networking and outreach that has come with this opportunity is just phenomenal.

How do you stay informed?

My peers are a great source of information. I’m also a big reader of PM magazine (which is ICMA’s magazine), Governing magazine, and the Harvard Business Review. I’ve established a strategy team in the City of Milton consisting of eight department heads. We not only get together to manage the business of the city, but we also get together to invest in each other’s professional development.

We’ve read books such as Good to Great and will be reading A Whole New Mind. A Whole New Mind is an interesting book. It analyzes how the left brain thinkers of the world, those people who deal with analytics and strategy, have to find some way to exercise their right brain. If there is a technology solution that can replace people, then it’s being implemented. If a job can be outsourced cheaper overseas, then it’s being outsourced. If you don’t exercise your creative abilities to get your right brain working in conjunction with your left brain, over time it becomes more difficult to answer the question, “Why do you provide value?” In our business, city managers often present cases to City Council. Where we probably fall short is with our ability to tell a story. People don’t always remember numbers, facts and figures. But if you tell a story, they’ll remember. That philosophy also applies to how you relate to citizens. You’ve got to demonstrate you’re doing something for your citizens that they can’t get from a computer or overseas.

What do you do for fun? How do you enjoy your free time?

I have a six-year-old who keeps me running ragged. We have a lot of fun. At this point in his life, baseball and Harry Potter keeps us occupied. I also have a wonderful wife. My favorite hobby is cooking. My specialty (and I think my staff would agree) is barbecue. And I’m not talking about a hamburger on a grill. I’m talking about real, honest-to-goodness barbeque! We do barbecue about once a month at City Hall.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Clint Nelms, Network Infrastructure Practice Manager

You may have already read about cloud computing hype, so skepticism in this Wall Street Journal article comparing it to the Industrial Revolution is understandable. It’s understood that cloud computing has distinct benefits. If you suffer headaches from purchasing and maintaining software or email on your own servers, then cloud computing’s “buy as you use” model (which works similar to utilities) can reduce your costs and increase performance without the worries of software maintenance.

However, the article also says: “Far-fetched though [the comparison to the Industrial Revolution] may sound, research published by the London-based Centre for Economics and Business Research in December seems partly to reinforce this view. It predicts that the increased productivity, job creation, business development and competitive advantage brought about by cloud computing will generate an additional €763 billion ($1.04 trillion) in economic value and will create some 2.4 million jobs in Europe during the next five years.”

These benefits are a consequence of less disruption (and more operational continuity), reduced costs (and more hiring), and lower cost of entry (which means more access to critical line of business applications that improve citizen services). If your municipality has not seriously explored the cost and productivity benefits of cloud computing, talk to your IT director or a trusted vendor.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Dave Mims, President

This article notes Jacksonville, Florida’s successful process of moving to a new ERP system and expands upon other cities’ experiences illustrating what can go right...and wrong...with such implementations. To maximize the investment for such a complicated project, it’s essential to follow a clear methodical process that includes rigorous requirements, vendor selection, and project management. If a sound process is followed, a city can truly make a leap forward in terms of cost savings and productivity enhancements.

For another case study on an ERP implementation, please review the City of Duluth, Georgia’s successful project.
 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development

Security issues and social media are two unwilling dancing partners in the evolution of the communication services that are revolutionizing how we communicate. There is no doubt that entering the world of social media is a must, yet many legitimate security issues unfortunately scare off municipalities from fully participating.

However, with just a few basic IT network and security precautions, a municipality can be assured that entering the world of social media will involve no more risk than Internet access and email for employees.

  • Make sure all servers and workstations are being proactively monitored for security threats by your IT staff or vendor.
  • Make sure all antivirus, antispam, and content filtering/blocking tools are active and up-to-date.
  • Enforce existing municipal policies that cover usage and permissions.

A Compuware study last year found that around 99% of data loss incidents are caused by internal users (not external attacks). It’s easy to blame the users, but even the most savvy of users can be tricked by some of the complicated virus and phishing attacks seen on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. We recommend talking to your IT staff or a trusted vendor to discuss methods of securing your network and making sure users are protected.

As this GovTech article states unequivocally, “...some would argue that without anti-virus, data loss prevention and scanning tools, a social media presence simply wouldn’t be possible for a public agency.”

Monday, February 14, 2011
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development


Phil McLemore
City Administrator
City of Duluth, Georgia

As the independent focal point for daily City operations, Phil McLemore guides the City of Duluth through surges in residential, commercial, and quality of life growth. Mr. McLemore works with a municipal staff of 138 employees, manages a $42,543,413 annual budget, and advises the Mayor and Council on strategic and tactical planning, budgeting and programming. He has been with the City of Duluth since 1996. Before coming to Duluth, he worked for Polk County government in Florida as the Development Services Director and, prior to that, he worked for Cobb County government and the Atlanta Regional Commission. He currently resides with his wife in Dunwoody. They have one daughter who has made him a proud grandpa of two girls and a boy.


What are some of the biggest challenges facing the City of Duluth?
 
While our City faces various challenges such as embracing diversity, maintaining infrastructure, and expanding parks, they all take second seat to the economy and the City’s budget. Duluth’s major challenge right now is building back the 20% of our general revenue that we lost to the recession at the end of 2008.
 
At that time, Duluth had to find a way to balance its next budget. The loss of revenue meant either tax increases or expense cuts to offset the loss without cutting services. We also had to maintain the support of our citizens at a time when many were losing their jobs. The City decided to form a citizens budget committee with 44 volunteer members. The citizens received information about the City’s expenditures from the previous budget to study, and they were encouraged to ask questions. Each City department appeared before the citizens group to explain what they had cut and what the impacts would be for additional cuts.

What actionable information resulted from this citizen group?
 
The Citizens were told that they could recommend a reduction of employees, furloughs, tax increases, reductions in reserve funds, and any other ideas. The group indicated they felt more services should be paid for with fees by those who used that service. For example, our court operation was a big cost item. However, those using the court were paying no more for its operation than those who never used it. The group recommended that the City establish a $20 court usage fee. This fee was put into place and it generates $200,000 a year in new revenue.
 
The group also recommended that the new software and handheld hardware purchased for our police officers should have a technology fee charged to all users of the technology. As a result, the City added a fee to every ticket that is now going to pay off the cost of new software and hardware. Wrecker services, business licenses, alcohol permits, parks, city events, and sanitation were additional areas that the group felt the City could charge fees.
 
In 2009, these fees (along with cuts by staff and some reserve funds) balanced the City’s budget. In 2010, the same approach was used and the citizens committee determined that they did not want to cut City services. They recommended a tax millage increase of up to 1½ mills, the use of more reserve funds to balance the City’s budget, and that the City look into a stormwater utility as another method of charging fees. The City’s use of a citizens budget committee has proven to be one of the best tools the City has ever used in developing a working relationship with its citizens.

How does technology fit into your overall strategic vision?
 
A couple of years ago we recognized that the technology we were using was almost 20 years old and it was becoming too labor-intensive to do anything with our existing system. One example was that our City Council was receiving complaints about speeding tickets. Our police chief has repeatedly said we don’t stop people unless they are going more than 15 MPH above the speed limit. The Council wanted clear documentation as to how many tickets we had given for speeding less than and greater than 15 MPH. We had no technology that would let us query the system and give us that information. The police chief had to assign one person who manually went through every single ticket for the year, and it took that person one week of work to come up with an answer. After we updated our system, we can now do it in 15 minutes.
 
With the help of an IT consultant who helped us find the right software, we have seen tremendous changes in our efficiency since the software has been implemented. One of the greatest changes is evident in the Police Department. From the time a police officer writes a ticket, our police and court system used to manually rewrite the same information five different times. Now all of our police officers have handheld units in which they key in information. And that’s the last time someone needs to write down that information.

So this software had a major impact on public safety and many other departments?
 
This past year was the first time when we’ve had the software system up and operating to use with our annual budgeting. When we presented our financial information to City Council, we showed them the budget for each department through our software. The process went faster and easier because we could easily pull up any requested information. We didn’t have to go make changes and send it back to Council on another day. If Council wanted to make changes in the budget, they could be done while we were meeting.

How has the use of mobile devices impacted your city?
 
All of our department heads and key employees have iPhones now. These devices have become a good way of transferring data. We probably use them more for data than for voice. If I’m out of the office, I can access email on my iPhone and respond immediately if necessary.

How do you connect with and learn from other municipalities?
 
I am fortunate that the City of Duluth is in a county with fifteen other cities. Because of this number of cities, the Gwinnett Municipal Association was formed. The Association charges a fee for each City based on the number of citizens who live within that city. The money is used to hire a full time director who keeps all Gwinnett cities informed and acts as a State lobbyist on behalf of the cities. This group of united cities also has a much stronger voice when dealing with the County on items of common interest.
 
The Gwinnett Municipal Association meets twice every month. One meeting is for elected officials from the various cities, and the second meeting is for mayors and city managers. The city managers from the various cities will also contact each other between meetings to discuss items of common interest.
 
An example of the cities working together and exchanging information is their joint concern regarding fair and equitable treatment by the County of the City’s taxpayers. All of the cities joined together and paid for a study to look at what the City taxpayers paid for County services. The study’s findings indicated that city taxpayers overpaid the County for services they did not receive by as much as $20 million per year. Duluth taxpayers were paying over $2 million a year for services that were not received from the County such as police service, planning, zoning, and transportation. Duluth has its own police, planning, and zoning departments and does not use those services from the County.
 
Armed with documentation, the cities in Gwinnett have been trying to negotiate a settlement with the County to lower its tax millage on the services it is not providing to cities. The cities are expecting some type of agreement on this early this year.
 
In addition to the Gwinnett Municipal Association there are a few other organizations in which I participate. The Georgia City County Management Association provides education programs throughout the year and informs City and County Managers about state and federal issues that may affect them. The Georgia Municipal Association attends almost all of the Gwinnett Municipal Association meetings and keeps the cities informed about State laws and legislation. They also provide training for both elected officials and staff during the year. I am also a credentialed member of the International City/County Management Association which requires a minimum of seven years in a City Manager position as well as a minimum of 40 hours per year of study.

What do you do for fun? How do you enjoy your free time?
 
When there is free time, I spend it with my grandkids. I have three. I spend time with them doing anything they want to do. I’m fortunate in that they’re only about 15-20 minutes away, and we see other just about every weekend. I also enjoy getting outside and jogging, reading, and vacations that allow me some time to get away from everything!
 
Monday, February 14, 2011
Clint Nelms, Network Infrastructure Practice Manager

In our journeys over the past few years, we have spoken to the occasional municipality with outdated technology which places the city in a precarious state of affairs. While the example of the City of Chesapeake in this article from the Virginia Pilot is very extreme, it is not too dissimilar from some of the problems we’ve seen municipalities put off.

- Obsolete technology. Chesapeake’s is over 35 years old, but anything over 10 years old is just as ancient.
- Public safety effectiveness threatened by poor IT support and services.
- Servers and workstations failing or often being down.
- IT staff retiring or leaving who have all of the city’s IT knowledge in their heads.

Often, the longer a city waits to stay current with information technology, the more expensive it becomes to upgrade in the long run. If you feel your city might be behind the curve, talk to your IT staff or a trusted vendor for ways you might be able to lessen these risks.

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