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CitySmart Blog

Monday, January 17, 2011
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development

The Center for Digital Government recently released the results of its annual Digital Cities Survey. Many of the top technology-savvy cities were located in the Southeast. The rankings included:

250,000 or more population

4th City of Charlotte, N.C.

125-249,999 population

1st City of Richmond, Va.
3rd City of Norfolk, Va.
5th City of Hampton, Va.
5th City of Winston-Salem, N.C.
6th City of Alexandria, Va.
7th City of Augusta, Ga.
9th City of Hollywood, Fla.

75-124,999 population

5th City of High Point, N.C.
6th City of West Palm Beach, Fla.
8th City of Roanoke, Va.

30-74,999 population

2nd City of Lynchburg, Va.
3rd City of Danville, Va.
9th City of North Port, Fla.

Monday, January 17, 2011
Clint Nelms, Network Infrastructure Practice Manager

This article from the New Orleans Times-Picayune details how the City of New Orleans lost 20 months of real estate records through a disorganized faulty data backup and disaster recovery management process.

Rather than dwell on this unfortunate situation, it should serve as a reminder for local government to not ignore data backup and disaster recovery. The results are often disastrous, embarrassing, and a way to make taxpayers very angry.

It may seem acceptable (and cheap) to use a common offsite backup provider that one would use at home. However, when local government chooses that route the burden of supporting that data backup also falls upon them. Data backup for an entire municipality (often involving extremely sensitive data) can be quite complex, and it requires a higher level of support to help cities manage it.

Take a look at your current data backup solution and ask yourself:

1. Do we have a sufficient online and offsite data backup process?
2. Are we testing our backups on a regular schedule?
3. Is auditing provided by the city’s IT staff and/or data backup vendor documenting that all city data is being backed up properly?

Consumer offsite data backup solutions are great. But for cities, the difference between backup success and disaster often comes down to the business processes around data backup.

Before your municipality goes the route of New Orleans, read our article discussing why consumer-grade data backup solutions are not sufficient for cities.

Monday, December 20, 2010
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development


Judy McCorkle
City Administrator
City of Sandersville, Georgia

Judy McCorkle has spent over 18 years in local government. Through her roles as city administrator, city clerk, and finance director, her talents and hard work have improved the lives of citizens in Statesboro and Sandersville. In fact, the Georgia Municipal Clerks and Finance Officers Association (GMCFOA) awarded her the 2004 Finance Officer of the Year. She currently leads the City of Sandersville as their City Administrator. She earned a B.S. in Political Science and an M.P.A. at Georgia Southern University, and her knowledge and experience make her a great asset to the elected officials, employees, and citizens of Sandersville. She is married to Gary McCorkle and has two children: Matthew and Jennifer.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing your city?
 
With such a bad national economy these days, Sandersville is similar to other local governments in its challenges. We’re dealing with budget constraints and declining revenues which we did not necessarily have to face in the years leading up to the recession. Lack of revenues puts us in a sort of crisis state. We were seeing some decline in the kaolin industry prior to the economic downturn, and so the downturn certainly added to the decline. Our unemployment rate is 15%. When people are unemployed, they don’t have money to spend. When people don’t have money to spend, you receive less sales tax revenue. A decline in property values compounds this problem. You cannot simply raise taxes; people are unemployed and really can’t afford to pay a whole lot more. As a result, we have to do more with less. It’s a big challenge these days for most cities to keep levels of service the same while also reducing budget expenses to match declining revenues.
 
A positive result of working through these challenges is that we have become much more detailed in our budget process. We now involve more people such as supervisors and department heads who have never really sat in on budget meetings before. The City Council has also been more actively involved with the budget process. When you get more people from all service levels involved in budgeting, I feel they better understand budget constraints.
 
For example, a large part of any budget is salary and benefits. We are not furloughing or laying off people like many local governments, but at the same time we’re not doing salary increases next year. We’re also looking at the level of benefits we provide and made some changes to our benefits structure. Employees understand that making changes in the benefits structure is going to help the city provide them with a job in which they won’t be furloughed.
 
How does technology fit into your overall strategic vision?
 
Technology plays a huge role. In the last few years, technology hasn’t gotten a lot of attention at Sandersville and we’re a little behind where we should be compared to other cities. However, our City Council has understood the importance of bringing us up to a higher standard. We are investing resources in fiscal year 2010 and 2011, and we have a strategic technology plan that takes us to 2012 and 2013. Some of those technology resources are committed to our Internet Service Provider / Telecom customers. We’re trying to provide our telecom services to customers much more economically while also improving quality.
 
Some other technology initiatives include providing new software programs at city hall that talk and connect to each other. By improving our software, we want to also make our services available to our customers online. We developed a new website in 2010 that is much more updated than the previous version and provides a lot more information. Like all websites, it is a work in progress. We encourage people to take a look at it (www.sandersville.net). We plan to make all of our city services available online within the next six months, including eGovernment services. If you can do it at city hall, we want citizens to be able to do it on our website. That is something we haven’t done in the past, and I realize many other cities are already providing online services. By placing these services online, they become more feasible and economical for both citizens and the city. The new software will help provide faster, more accurate information in the budgeting process and also help citizens who are utility customers, who require business licenses, and who pay property taxes. Getting those services online is going to be a big priority for us in 2011.
 
In the last year, we’ve been trying to use technology more in the area of public safety. We purchased and deployed some mobile desk terminals in 2009, and we purchased several more in 2010. Now these terminals have become a standard part of the routine vehicle and equipment replacement schedule for public safety. This technology will keep our police officers in the field more, enable them to complete their reports in a timelier manner, and provide better public safety to our citizens.
 
I should also mention that we’re dabbling with social media. In the last thirty days we have developed a Facebook page for our animal control department. In just a short time, they have already had hundreds of hits and several people inquiring about the animals we have available for adoption. We’ve been amazed at the responses to that page in such a short period of time, and we’re going to continue promoting that page and using social media in other departments.
 
How do you connect with and learn from other municipalities?
 
When times are tough, people often first cut back on travel budgets. The idea is that traveling is a waste of time and money. Cutting back on travel means cutting back on training. While there are more training programs available online than ever before, the best tool I have had throughout my years in local government to help me learn more about my job are my experiences talking with city officials. You can sit in classrooms all day, but nothing compares to networking and face-to-face conversations with other city officials about common problems, ways to help each other, and solutions that work for them and might work for you. I would encourage people to continue participating in professional organizations and networking because it’s one of the most important ways we learn how to do our jobs better.
 
I’m involved in several associations and I try to attend as many meetings as I can. Like many cities in Georgia, we’re part of the Georgia Municipal Association and the Georgia City-County Management Association. I also encourage my employees to participate in their professional associations. For example, the Georgia Government Finance Officers Association allows city finance officers to learn about methodologies and best practices that will help them in the budgeting process, hear from economists, and anticipate upcoming trends that will affect cities. Our city council, court, public safety, fire department, electric utilities, and other departments are involved in their associations. When times are tough and you’re looking for ways to save money and cut back, cutting back on professional development is not the best way to save. I would cut in other areas rather than lose those opportunities for training and networking in which people bring back valuable knowledge to their cities. It’s even more important in these times.
 
What do you do for fun? How do you enjoy your free time?
 
I’m a Braves fanatic. Chipper Jones is my favorite player. (People tease me about that!) I love watching the Braves, and my family and I go see them several times a year. My daddy was a Braves fan, so that’s always been part of my life.
My family and children are the most important thing in my life. I believe we work for our family and our children. We’re also very active in our church. My husband and I are involved in several committees, my daughter taught Sunday school, and we’re involved in many church activities. We all work for a better quality of life, and quality of life starts with church activities, family, friends, and the times you spend together.
 
To share one story as an example, I have a daughter (Jennifer) who couldn’t decide exactly what she wanted to do after looking at several professions. All of a sudden, she became interested in city management. She finished her master’s degree in public administration from Georgia Southern University, and she’s doing her internship in the city manager’s office in Sylvania. When she made that decision, I said, “Jennifer, you’ve lived this all your life. You see the stress and what it’s like. Why would you want to get into this profession?” She said something profound in response: “I’ve seen that. But I’ve also seen the good side, and I’ve seen how it helps the community and gives back to the people. And that’s what I want to do. I want to give back to the people.” I thought to myself, that’s why we’re all in this profession.
Monday, December 20, 2010
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development
As cities get barraged with information about Gov 2.0, eGovernment, Web 2.0, whatever you call it, it’s difficult to sort out the substance from the hype. This Fast Company article does an excellent job analyzing the current landscape.

I agree that it is good to be critical of Gov 2.0. When local governments are often sometimes strapped to keep basic services running, cost savings and ROI are critical for any new product or service being contemplated. However, the subtext of this article suggests two important insights that city officials cannot ignore:

1. The demand for better services is often being driven by citizens. The case of SeeClickFix was spurred by a frustrated citizen who could not get his local government to respond to legitimate concerns through normal channels.
2. There is a generation of tech-savvy talent who, rather than go to the corporate sector, want to help local government. To them, serving local government has purpose and they want to help it. An idealism exists despite the highly negative partisan climate toward government that we constantly see in the press.

I believe these two trends signal a massive shift ahead in how local governments will change and adapt as Internet/mobile technologies grow more sophisticated, become more ingrained in our lives, and affect the way people interact with their city officials. The article strikes an optimistic note in that, after decades of complaints about citizen apathy, we see signs that technology (Gov 2.0) is untapping a latent demand for more interaction and participation with local government from a whole new generation of young talented people.
Monday, December 20, 2010
Clint Nelms, Network Infrastructure Practice Manager
This lengthy report from the United States Government Accountability Office highlights that government agencies often compromise their data and information because of basic security lapses with their wireless technology. Some questions cities can immediately think about and address include:

- What policies are in place concerning wireless encryption, usage, and access?
- How are laptops and mobile devices handled in terms of security?
- When was the last time a security assessment was performed?

It is a shame how basic security lapses can lead to embarrassing and costly compromises to city data. There are some good tips and advice that serve as a starting point for cities in this report.
Monday, December 20, 2010
Clint Nelms, Network Infrastructure Practice Manager
This CIO Update article presents some interesting data that shows how common and mainstream server virtualization has become for local government. If it is this mainstream, that means the ROI of virtualization must be growing more and more compelling as these technologies mature.

As one case study in the article points out, the City of Chesapeake, Virginia saved $3,000/month in energy savings, $200,000 in hardware savings, and $120,000 in implementation cost savings. In a July 2010 report from CDW-G, “Seventy-nine percent of state and local government agencies are implementing server, storage and/or client virtualization, and of these, 89 percent say their deployment is successful or somewhat successful...” Among those surveyed, 300 were state and local government IT professionals (the other 300 were federal IT professionals).

If you’re one of the few cities left that has not explored virtualization as an option, better dust off those calculators and start figuring out some ROI!
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Dave Mims, President

If you look at where municipalities spend the most time actually interacting with citizens, it is almost always centered on payment-based services like tickets, taxes, or utilities. On any given day there is a line of people in city hall waiting to submit some form of payment. The problem is that it’s a very time consuming and costly process for both parties. The city has to staff for the collection and processing, and the citizens have to spend time standing in a line (usually during the highly inconvenient 9-5 hours). 

This is how government functioned for ages. Yet over the last ten years many cities began experimenting with allowing some of these payments to be made online. The high-level benefits are immediately obvious: the city lowers costs while the citizens can pay whenever from wherever.  It seems like a win-win for everyone, so it is perhaps surprising to find that even in 2010 many cities still don’t offer these services. As cities look for ways to do more with less, moving payments online represents a great opportunity to realize huge cost savings and potentially even increase revenue. Here’s how:

Processing
Ask your city’s finance manager what the most important part of administering payments is and they’re likely to say “processing!” Even if payments come into the front window, if they aren’t properly processed it’s like they never arrived at all. Anything that can be done to streamline this processing can dramatically reduce costs for the city and get money into the coffers faster. Allowing citizens to make payments online eliminates a number of processing steps by having the payments entered directly into the city’s various accounting systems. A city will experience benefits such as:
  • Reduced foot traffic at municipal buildings.
  • Reduced total staff time to accept and process payments.
  • Increased total number of payments that can be processed at once.
  • Expanded processing time (e.g. from a 9am-5pm to a 24/7 operation).

Think about the amount of staff time spent accepting payments, entering data into the system, counting cash, or tracking down checking numbers. Think about the room for error in each manual step. How much money could you save by re-tasking these workers?

Record Keeping
The second most important task on your finance manager’s list is proper record keeping. If the books aren’t in good shape, it can cost the city tremendous money and manpower to correct the issue. Online payments help with financial records in two key areas: 

  1. Data Entry – Any time you have a manual process, there is an opportunity for error. Something as simple as a ticket may have to be manually entered into three or four different systems. Not only is it time consuming, but every time the information is touched creates an opportunity for error. Online payments represent a way to reduce those errors by having the citizens enter the information themselves.  Not only does it move the onus of data entry onto the citizen but if the payment system is properly designed it won’t even let them enter a successful payment without first checking key problem areas. Errors get solved earlier and quicker, dramatically reducing the time your staff has to spend ferreting them out.

  2. Data Access – Any time your city is accepting payments for a service it has to provide a way for citizens to get information about their account. For example, whenever a customer has a question about how much electricity they used this month, they need to call into the city where a staff member has to spend time helping them. Online payments can help reduce these time-consuming calls by giving citizens access to their own data. Think of it like on-line banking: in the past if you wanted to know how much money was in your account you had to go to the bank. Now you can instantly check your account online. When it comes to utilities and taxes, giving citizens a way to answer their own questions can reduce the number of calls handled by city staff, allowing you to refocus them on other tasks. It also helps improve citizens’ perception of customer service by putting more information at their fingertips.

Conclusion
Accepting online payments is a great way to reduce ongoing costs while increasing the quality of service. However, these costs are proportional to the number of services you have available online. While many cities have online ticket payment, fewer have taxes, registration, or utilities. Take a comprehensive look at the services your city offers and investigate if there is a way to move them online. The benefits in cost savings and increased availability to citizens make it an easy sell when it comes time to pitch it to city council. Who doesn’t want to get more for less? Online payments give you the power to do so.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010
Todd Snoddy, Software Development Practice Manager
This article about San Francisco’s shift toward open data illustrates both sides of the argument. On one side: Open data can possibly enable economic development, increase civic engagement, and hold cities more accountable. On the other side: Open data requirements may burden IT departments too much and it may burden city staff who have the additional task of submitting data into the open data pool.
 
The goal of open data is summarized by Mayor Gavin Newsom’s policy adviser Jason Elliott:
“Departments would be required to submit data sets to an online landing pad where that data would be publicly accessible by anyone to develop applications, to see what The City is doing and generally just promote transparency and accountability and openness.”

What’s your take on open data for municipalities?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development
The Public Technology Institute and INPUT recently released their annual State of City and County IT National Survey. Coalescing the responses of local government CIOs and IT executives across the United States, the report includes the following highlights:

- 91% of overall IT budgets are staying the same or decreasing. Only 9% are increasing in 2011.
- Public safety / interoperability was the only category in which a majority of respondents (57%) said it was a high IT priority.
- Other areas receiving significant attention in 2011 include public works / facilities infrastructure, green IT, and eGovernment services.
- An overwhelming majority of respondents were skeptical of outsourcing their IT.
- 2012 looks to be the year in which cities will begin collecting increased revenue and upping their spending again.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Dave Mims, President
Clint Nelms, Network Infrastructure Practice Manager for Sophicity, recently had his article (“Cheap Backup Solutions Aren’t Worth the Risk”) published in the September/October 2010 issue of Minnesota Cities: A Publication of the League of Minnesota Cities. The article covers differences between consumer-grade and business-class internet-based backup solutions, risks associated with consumer-grade backups, and expertise needed for consumer-grade backups. It was featured in the Tech Window section of the magazine.
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