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CitySmart Blog

Wednesday, November 04, 2009
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development
The Cloud Ave blog has a great post on Dustin Haisler, the CIO for Manor, Texas who recently opened a website called Manor Labs. The site is essentially a city-owned R&D lab designed to collect and test citizen’s ideas about improving the city. They can sort their idea by department and then open a discussion about how this will affect the city. It’s a great idea and one more way that technology is helping to crack open governance by making it a true community effort.
Tuesday, November 03, 2009
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience
The Center for Digital Government has released its list of the top digital cities for 2009. These cities have displayed that they are using technology in an innovative way to better provide citizen services. Essentially, cities of population 30k and over are asked to respond to a survey and then the results are tabulated and judged. Hit the jump for the full list of cities and find out who won! Sadly there's no Georgia cities on the list, but I know someone who can help get you there...
Friday, October 30, 2009
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience

So we’ve talked a lot about how many cities are trying innovative new things with social media. But not everyone gets it. News from Bozeman, MT shows that the city requested social media log ons and passwords from potential employees. That’s right, they wanted to log into their private feeds in order to perform a background check. Naturally, once word got out there was somewhat of an uproar and the city reversed its decision, but the damage was done. This is a further example of why having social media policies in place at your city is a mandatory thing in this day and age. It’s easy to cross the boundary from the public to the private, so making sure everyone is on the same page about social media use during the hiring phase is boon to everyone. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Dave Mims, President
GovTech is running a great piece with five tips for outsourcing. Naturally, we’ve discussed this topic here for a while, but we also think it’s important to get an outside view. While outsourcing might work for everyone, it’s far beyond just a simple decision. It needs to be a city-wide discussion before a vendor is even brought in the door for a talk. Obviously, we’re in favor of a hybrid approach to outsourcing, but only when and where it makes sense. We strongly suggest anyone thinking about outsourcing goes to a trusted advisor and external article like GovTech’s to help them navigate the path. In the end, while we’d love to outsource for you, we want you to do it because it’s right for your city, not just right for us.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
Alemeda County, California is set to save a projected $15 million in a single year due to an application integration project for its social services programs. Now that’s ROI. Essentially its linking a whole bunch of formerly separate systems to give its case workers a wide view of each enrollee across multiple programs. Where are the savings coming from? Mostly by detecting errors and fraud within the system. If the databases aren’t talking, someone could spend years getting benefits that they aren’t qualified for, costing tax payers millions of dollars. Naturally, not every city has the 1.5 million dollars that this project cost to implement, but this does demonstrate the value of having an integrated, intelligent system across the board.
Friday, October 23, 2009
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
More evidence that major cities are looking into a hybrid model of outsourcing. GovTech is reporting that Houston, Texas has hired a firm to look into consolidating the city’s IT and potentially outsourcing services. Apparently the company is going to show them three models: in-house, completely outsourced, and a hybrid model. In a city this large, it makes total sense to look into a hybrid outsourced model, as Houston will surely need folks with long time experience in the environment to make it happen. We’ll be tracking this one, but we’re going to place our money on the hybrid model as the clear choice.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Municipal Association of South Carolina
*This is taken from a recent flyer given out by the Municipal Association of South Carolina at the SMC convention. All credit goes to them for this, but we simply had to repost it as it's great advice.
  1. Decide why you want to launch a Twitter or Facebook account – understand the power value of these tools before you start using them.
  2. Identify the people you can reach with these tools - Twitter and Facebook often reach residents who usually don’t pay attention to local government issues.
  3. Choose someone to manage the site and its message – it’s not about just reposting information from your city website.
  4. Start small and figure out what works – understand how these tools fit into your city’s overall strategy to communicate you message.
  5. Pay attention to what your residents are posting to better understand how the city can meet their needs.
  6. Calculate the risks of having negative comments posted by the public – have a plan to deal with negative posts.
  7. Be transparent in your posting – avoid having a staff person ghost-tweeting for an elected official.
  8. Post time-sensitive community announcements like traffic tie-ups disaster notifications, or parks and rec schedule updates.
  9. Post links to good news stories or re-Tweet good things people are saying – shorten your links at www.budurl.com or www.tinyurl.com
  10. Use a casual tone and short words – posts don’t have to be full sentences, but still make sure words are spelled correctly.

(Note all these tips fit the 140 character count for a Twitter post)

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.
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