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CitySmart Blog

Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Dave Mims, President
The 17th century saw the widespread introduction of domesticated cows to North American shores by English settlers. However, over the next century it became clear that while the cows were docile and produced good milk and meat, they were not particularly well suited to the harsh winters of the New World and consumed food at a rate that was hard to sustain for the burgeoning colonies. As settlement pressed west during the 18th century, farmers found vast herds of buffalo that had roamed the American plains for eons. They were large and unruly but also better adapted to the cold weather and ate less food. After witnessing the offspring of “accidental” pairings between buffalo and cows, the settlers began experimenting with careful mating of the two species in order to create a heartier livestock. After a couple hundred years of experimentation, the 1960’s brought the first viable offspring which quickly came to be known as the “beefalo.” This hybrid animal displayed a perfect blend of the desirable traits of its parents: docile, lean, adequate milk, moderate eating, and hearty enough to survive the coldest nights. In genetic science, this phenomenon is known as hybrid vigor, and it’s the reason that the beefalo has a lot to teach the modern IT department about the benefits of a hybrid approach to outsourcing.

Traditionally, outsourcing is considered a “cows or buffalos” proposition; IT functions are either kept fully in-house or they are handled entirely by a third-party vendor, with little overlap between the two. While there are benefits to each method, the inherent weaknesses of both are becoming increasingly hard for municipal governments to navigate. While in-house IT offers greater, control and flexibility, it can also be costly and require a great deal of effort to manage. Outsourced IT services offer a better route for smaller cities, allowing them access to top-tier talent at an affordable rate. However, bringing in outside help may be perceived as a loss of control and transparency, and there’s always the risk that the vendor might go out of business. Municipalities have spent countless hours trying to determine which route works best, only to find that the answers were never clear-cut.

Modern municipalities face tightening budgets, increasing regulations and greater public scrutiny, all creating an IT environment that on the one hand requires cost-effectiveness and control and on the other high-technology and transparency. The increasing pressure is putting IT departments in a position where they need to adapt to the changing landscape or suffer the consequences of budget cuts, furloughs, and other cost cutting measures. So how do these departments make such a move? Do as the settlers did: create a hybrid. Such a hybrid of in-house IT knowledge and outsourced services could bring the benefits of both and enable the city to meet the needs of its internal and external customers. Let’s take a look at how a hybrid outsourced model might fit into some common municipal IT department models.


Experienced Internal IT Team

As a long time IT engineer, I’m willing to bet that any experienced IT staff will tell you they would rather be doing cool special projects like server virtualization or ERP system rollouts than rote tasks like nightly server backups and virus patching. These special projects offer a chance for the team to learn new skills and actually shape the environment they maintain, an exciting prospect for any dyed-in-the-wool engineer. The problem is these types of projects often take a long time to plan, implement, and launch; time the team isn’t spending doing the mundane but highly necessarily day-to-day tasks. This is a good place to consider an outsourced hybrid model.

Instead of overburdening an experienced team with added hours to ensure the environment is kept up, let them focus on the engaging special projects while an outsourced team handles the day to day operations. Normally, this would mean that the vendor is doing things like user support, routine maintenance, backups, virus protection and so on. These functions are fairly standard across all IT departments so it shouldn’t take a vendor too long to ramp up on your environment. In fact, you might want to elect a project manager on your side to mentor the vendor until they can mirror the internal processes. This model works well because it gives your special projects the attention they need, speeds up the vendor’s time to be effective and ensures that the environment is in top operating condition.

However, not all cities will have the experience needed to engage in special projects. In fact, many cities will have a mix of experience, resulting in a team that is very good at the maintenance and operations, but might not have the experience or time to perform special projects. Again, a hybrid model can fit in nicely by allowing the internal team to focus on running the daily operations like back-ups, maintenance, and help desk while an outsourced vendor handles planning and rolling out the special projects. This gives both areas the attention to detail they need to be truly successful and it won’t encumber the internal staff with a monumental task.

The main advantage in this situation is time. An outsourced vendor is going to have experience in completing whatever special project is at hand and won’t need much time to ramp up on the project. An internal team will likely need to learn an entirely new skill set and experience some of the hard lessons that come with any new project rollout which may increase the time it takes to fully complete the project. While an outsourced vendor might cost more upfront, consider that, due to a lack of experience, it might take the internal team longer to complete the project increasing the overall cost.


Small Internal IT Team

Many smaller cities may only have one person to manage the entire IT infrastructure. This brave soul usually has to perform operations and special projects. If this person gets too busy on a particular task, other areas of the infrastructure can start to suffer, leading to an inconsistent level of service. The city might be tempted to hire additional help for this person when things get busy, but it’s sometimes difficult to justify bringing in a new employee simply as a stop-gap. Here, an outsourced approach can help reduce the workload while adding stability and predictability to the environment so that it’s not in constant flux. For instance, you might outsource patching, monitoring, and backup functions while keeping the in-house employee for “boots on the ground” maintenance. Think of it like an alarm system: you use an outsourced alarm company to detect problems, but your internal staff reacts to the alarm. This hybrid augments and better equips the employee to be highly efficient, especially in light of the increasingly complex world of civic IT that might quickly overburden a single person (endless open records requests come to mind.)


No Internal IT Team

If you have no internal IT team it probably means that various department stakeholders such as City Officials or the Police Chief are the ones managing IT for their department. In many cases, it’s clear when the city needs an outside vendor to properly maintain the environment, but sometimes such talk can also illicit fears of loss of control. Stakeholders might be unwilling to give up access to sensitive information, especially when it comes to the Public Safety department. However, in a hybrid approach the vendor would take care of all of the maintenance and operations while leaving access to important data and applications in the hands of the stakeholders. For instance, the Police Chief could still control access to the public safety servers while the outsourced vendor maintains and backs them up. This approach can help smaller cities maintain a secure and stable network at an expense that is often much lower than hiring full-time IT staff, if the stakeholders are willing to give up a little power so that they can better focus on their primary role for the city.


Conclusion

Each of these examples illustrates that when you’re considering outsourced IT, it helps to think of it not as an all or nothing affair but rather as a sliding scale. Outsourcing can be brought in at any level to aid the city’s IT infrastructure, from a full-bore outsourced IT shop to a simple, ongoing relationship with internal staff. Adapting to the changing municipal government IT environment is going to require the familiarity of the domesticated cow combined with the exotic strength of the buffalo to be truly successful. It’s up to each city to create a hybrid that’s best adapted to their environment, but I’ll bet the milk farm that an IT beefalo will be a beneficial addition to any municipality’s IT operation for years to come.

Monday, October 19, 2009
Dave Mims, President
At the Fall 2009 Southern Municipal Conference (SMC) in Charleston, South Carolina, I presented on SharePoint governance, an often overlooked topic until the current SharePoint implementation has devolved into a mess. SharePoint is a powerful platform that can solve many issues quickly with out of the box functionality, but without governance your independent departmental solutions will grow into ugly chaos when viewed at the organization level.

In the presentation, I clarify the mystical SharePoint Governance buzzwords that have been adding confusion for many. I also outline the best practices model and approach for implementing SharePoint throughout an organization. In fact, it’s the model we use here at Sophicity. As they say, we eat our own dog food.

Check out the presentation slides and ping me if you have any feedback.

Also, if you want to learn more about our lessons learned for using SharePoint to increase productivity while decreasing cost please checkout our Spring 2009 SMC presentation Putting the Share in SharePoint.

Friday, October 16, 2009
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
More troubling news out of the State of Virginia. Yesterday the State sent out notification letters that it had misplaced files containing the personal information of over 100,000 former adult education students. The culprit? An employee stored the data on an unencrypted thumb drive and then promptly misplaced the drive. The State says there’s no indication that the data has been accessed, but if its on a thumb drive, how are they sure? This is once again an illustration that simple having back-up tapes and a good firewall does not a data security policy make. A good policy will account for as much “human error” as possible (it can never be fully eliminated, humans being human and all) by implementing polices around mandatory encryption, disallowing the use of thumb drives, and any other number of things. If you’re building a data security policy, make sure that it is robust, and most importantly, enforceable.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Dave Mims, President
We spend of lot of time on this blog discussing how governments are going digital to help add efficiency to their operations. With shrinking budgets and labor shortages, many cities have no other choice but to take a serious look at updating their IT infrastructure. Sure, it might cost more upfront, but the savings can be drastic and the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" mentality is no longer enough to justify sticking with the status quo. Take this example from the NY Times about how cities and counties around the country are going digital.

One quote, from Alameda County, Ca's Assistant Director Donald Edwards particularly caught my eye: "...government services will be increasingly automated. This is about the modernization and mechanization of services." That pretty much sums up the future pretty well. We're going to see more local government entities moving in this direction as soon as they can get over the initial shock of having to pay money for things that aren't necessarily "on fire."

Check it out and it's a great article if you're thinking of reinventing the way your city uses IT.

Monday, October 12, 2009
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development
While talking with all of the GMIS-GA IT folks at their 2009 Fall Conference, I heard ten topics that seemed to be on their mind:
  1. Budget cuts and retirees are reducing available staff while hiring freezes and recruiting difficulties are creating a potential labor shortage 
  2. Need for help with RFPs and finding software applications
  3. Harnessing social media
  4. Virtualization
  5. Trouble with vendors and systems integration
  6. Need for a IT business plan
  7. SharePoint implementations
  8. IP-cameras downtown
  9. Online forms, applications, payments
  10. New websites
I also wanted to thank everyone for a great conference and the opportunity to present on Silverlight. Here's the slideshow for the presentation.
Friday, October 09, 2009
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience
I've been in and around the web design business since the 90's and when it comes to creating a new site, there's one mistake I see over and over again: Not listening to the audience. Remember that when you design a website, its intent is to be read by users outside the organization, and so usability becomes a key factor. Your marketing department might want a super-sexy website with Flash and animation, but never forget that citizens are coming to the site to get information quickly and consistently. This is a lesson that Fairfax County, Va. just learned as they went about redesigning their web presence. Initial sites were high design, but the user's panned them on usability. They soon discovered that the simpler they made the website, the higher the approval rating went. In the end, their website was so simple it actually won an award. All by taking the time to do focus testing and listening to their audience. As any comedian will tell you, the audience makes or brakes you.  
Wednesday, October 07, 2009
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
A cautionary tale from The Big Apple. We've mentioned NYC's efforts for an open government platform in the past. But today came news that when the city released its data, it inadvertently released a slew of personal and private information into the data set. In this case it was something fairly benign - answers to secret questions for a password reset feature - but it illustrates a point: If the government is going to provide open data sets, which by all means they should, it is their responsibility to ensure that the data is properly scrubbed before it hits the public. If this would have been credit card or social security numbers, it would have been a colossal blunder, but instead NYC got a free lesson in basic data security. If your city is thinking of opening the data vaults, make extra sure that the data is fit for public consumption because once it makes it onto the net, it's there forever.
Monday, October 05, 2009
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience
During my daily read through Governing's website, I came across this great post by blogger Ken Miller. He's typically focuses on change in the government sector and how difficult it sometimes is. At the end of his post, he relayed what he calls the 10 Paradoxical Commandments Of Government. Instead of commenting on them, they're so brilliant I'm just going to repost them here and them sink in:

The Paradoxical Commandments of Government

1. The reward for doing good work is more work. Do good work anyway.

2. All the money you save being more efficient will get cut from your budget now and forever. Find efficiencies anyway.

3. All the bold reforms you make will be undone by the next administration. Make bold reforms anyway.

4. There is no time to think about improving what we do. Make time anyway.

5. Employees may fight the change every step of the way. Involve them anyway.

6. The future is unpredictable and largely out of your hands. Plan anyway.

7. The press only cares when something goes wrong. Share your success stories anyway.

8. Legal will never let you do it. Simplify it anyway.

9. If you develop your people they will move on to better jobs. Train them anyway.

10. Your ideas will at best make someone else look good and at worst get you ostracized by your co-workers. Share your ideas anyway.

Friday, October 02, 2009
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Exeprience
Earlier we discussed San Francisco’s DataSF.org and it seems to be growing nicely. Spurred in large part by Google, app challenges seem to be all the rage these days. Most recently to the game is San Francisco, which has just released the first round of its app challenge. There’s some cool stuff here, like an app to navigate the transit system, crime reports and others. Check it out for some cool ideas for adding a little bit of government 2.0 to your own city.
Friday, October 02, 2009
Sophicity announced today the release of the new website for the City of Oakwood, Ga. - www.cityofoakwood.net. Oakwood’s website was completely rebuilt using Sophicity’s Tribune City Website Manager and features a design that is representative of what this unique city brings to the state of Georgia. Stan Brown, City Manager, had this to say about the project:
“Oakwood recently went through a city-wide rebranding effort and we wanted our website to be consistent. We decided on Sophicity and Tribune because it was the best mix of service and features for the right price. Sophicity worked directly with our marketing staff to give us the exact website we wanted and delivered it on time and budget. Now we can update our own website without having to hire expensive programmers. We couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.”

Tribune City Website Manager offers city governments an easy way to maintain websites without the need for expensive web developers. Non-technical staff can easily post council minutes, agendas, events, photos, videos and more. Tribune also offers eGov features like citizen request forms, ticket payment integration and other ways to help cities reduce costs by doing more online. And as a hosted platform with a flat monthly fee, Tribune allows cities of any size to easily budget for future website costs.

About the City of Oakwood, Ga.
Nestled between the Interstate 985 corridor and the tree-lined shores of Lake Lanier, Oakwood, Ga. is in a fortuitous place – and time – to embark upon a bold vision that honors the city’s rich heritage while moving with confidence into a prosperous and well-planned future. Unique among emerging small towns, Oakwood is poised to harness the wave of fast growth sweeping southern Hall County to create a dynamic “sense of place” and destination community.

About Sophicity
For more than 10 years, Sophicity’s expertise has unleashed the potential of government IT for municipal leagues and their member cities, meeting the needs of everyone from city hall to public safety. Our senior consultants help improve budget efficiency and increase employee productivity beginning with detailed assessments that identify risks, opportunities, and guidelines for planning. Sophicity makes any IT project worry-free by defining the requirements, managing the project and implementing the right solution. At Sophicity, we put the IT in city.

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