CitySmart Blog

Thursday, August 18, 2016
Anthony Fantino, Network Infrastructure Consultant

Anthony FantinoEver watch or participate in a pickup game with friends? You play by your own set of rules. The game might start and stop randomly. You might lose track of the score. But if you watch a professional game right after your pickup game, you’ll notice everything that was missing. The rules, the framework, the organization, and the professional capabilities of the players. While there is room for spontaneity, a professional game is sleek and efficient—run like a machine, overseen by officials, and aligned to professional standards.

The same difference exists between having and not having information systems management best practices in place. You may have experienced organizations where the information systems feel more like a pickup football game rather than a professional football game. It’s only fun until something gets out of hand—and it seems like something always gets out of hand.

Cities need disciplined information systems management to reduce risk, improve operations, and even help comply with legislative audits such as those that occur in the state of Arkansas. Here are some best practices that can get you there.

1. Start with an information systems risk assessment.

First, it helps to understand the state of your information systems. What do you have? How old is your hardware and applications? What’s the state of your information security? Are you backing up your data? Use one of our risk assessments as a starting point and make sure you take a close look at your:

  • Website
  • Data backup and disaster recovery
  • Ease of finding information and responding to open records requests
  • Hardware, software, and network equipment
  • Issues getting IT problems resolved

By assessing your risks, you can focus on your city’s biggest problems first.

2. Create clear roles and responsibilities for people involved with information systems.

It’s easy to overlook. Cities may chug along managing their information systems without asking some key questions about everyone’s roles and responsibilities. Who does what? Who is responsible for information systems? Who has access to information? Who is authorized to grant access? What outside vendors have access to information?

At the very least, create a list of people and vendors along with their roles and what they do. For example, a small city may have a simple information systems org chart that includes the city manager who makes business-related technology decisions, a city clerk that works with the IT vendor to help them understand business needs and requirements, and an outside IT vendor that monitors and maintains all information systems on a day-to-day basis.

3. Create a policy and procedure manual.

While it might contain some technical information that you need help drafting, your city needs to have stakeholders create a policy and procedure manual for your information systems. You will need to define and document important items such as:

  • Information access and authorization
  • Business processes related to information systems
  • Physical security
  • Data backup and disaster recovery
  • Document workflows
  • Website rules and requirements

4. Back up your data and systems to provide for disaster recovery.

As one of the most important pieces of information systems management, your city needs a plan for restoring data and systems in case of a server failure or a major disaster. Some of the questions you need to address include:

  • What data do you need to back up?
  • What’s the most important data?
  • Who is responsible for data backup?
  • How often are you backing up data?
  • What happens in case of an onsite data loss event (such as a server failure)?
  • What happens in case of a full disaster (tornado, flooding, fire, etc.)?
  • Who is testing your data backup?
  • Are you documenting your data backup processes and following all laws?

5. Train users.

User training is important on many, many levels. First, empowering users with knowledge about your city’s information systems helps with their proficiency and productivity. If you’re investing in this technology, then training users allows you to maximize your investment. But secondly, training users also helps with lessening security risks. Many users may not be aware of the dangers of malicious websites, email attachments, online quizzes, social media games, and software that seems innocent. The more you teach users about the possibilities of your information systems along with some of the security risks that exist, your efforts will ripple positively across your organization.

Manage your city’s information systems like a professional football team, not a pickup game. By following the five best practices above, you will build a great foundation for your information systems, reduce risk, increase productivity, and comply with important laws.

Questions about your information systems management? Contact us today.

Thursday, August 11, 2016
Ryan Warrick, Network Infrastructure Consultant

Ryan WarrickObviously, your city must already have some kind of records management in place. After all, it’s the law for cities to keep records, respond to open records requests, and supply information for audits and investigations. But many cities don’t have a records management system in place beyond paper and cabinets, or they use a subpar records management system that frustrates more than it helps.

While a city clerk might not be able to change an existing records management system overnight, there are a series of steps they can take to help them modernize and align their city with records management best practices.

1. Review any city clerk handbooks for your state.

As a baseline, review your state’s city clerk handbook (if it exists). If you cannot find an official handbook, then contact your state’s city clerk’s association or municipal league to see if any equivalent materials are available. Review any sections related to records management to make sure that your city is—at a minimum—following the law and any best practices that would be easy to implement. That includes:

  • Creating a records management plan.
  • Understanding and following your state’s records retention schedule.
  • Maintaining records on an ongoing basis while following consistent policies.
  • Ensuring that records are secure, including both paper and electronic records.

2. Make sure you can easily locate all public information—electronic or otherwise.

In case of an open records request, you need to provide any public information on demand. How easily can you do it? Public information includes paper documents, electronic documents, emails, and other computer-based information. Where is that information stored? Is it in a cabinet or on a server where authorized personnel have access? Is it only on one person’s computer? Do you even know? It’s good to make an assessment of where all public information is located, note any unknowns, and identify any challenges in case you need to access it.

3. Identify weaknesses in your records management system that you need to remedy.

If going through an open records request is a time-consuming nightmare, then you need to consider a modern document management system that helps you organize, access, and retrieve documents in a more efficient way. Some things to consider include:

  • Data backup and disaster recovery. What happens in case of a disaster to your paper and electronic information? Have you scanned your important paper documents and converted them into electronic files? An offsite disaster recovery plan is critical and, in some states, it’s the law for electronic documents.
  • Search and retrieval. Can you easily search for and retrieve documents with ease? That includes documents such as Word files and PDFs along with emails.
  • Records retention schedules. Are your record retention schedules automatically applied to documents so that you consistently follow state law and city ordinances?
  • Security. Are you applying information security best practices to secure your records from hackers and prevent unauthorized employee access?

Consult with your state’s city clerk association and municipal league to consider recommended document management systems that shore up your weaknesses and modernize your technology.

4. Get records management training.

To keep up on new laws, trends, and best practices, consider receiving ongoing records management training. If available, take basic courses that lead to certification. Then, take any ongoing training classes and attend sessions at conferences. In some states, you will be required as a city clerk to take some records management courses.

5. Connect with city clerk associations and fellow city clerks.

Other city clerks will have years and even decades of experience with records management. Learn from them by attending city clerk conferences and events. Network with city clerks and give them a call with questions. In many cases, they will reinforce the points we’ve made above and also help you dig into deeper detail about what works for them.

For additional information, consider the following resources:

Friday, August 05, 2016
Dave Mims, CEO
Dave MimsIT in a Box is one of the many services provided by the Georgia Municipal Association to Georgia cities. To learn about all GMA services, check out the "We Are GMA" video below.
Thursday, August 04, 2016
Robert Parker, Network Infrastructure Consultant

Robert ParkerWith software, cities feel that they often face a dilemma. Standardized, out-of-the-box software lowers cost but restricts customization. Customized software better meets the needs of cities but may increase cost. What to do?

Let’s specifically look at document management software as an example of resolving this dilemma. Luckily, document management software has existed for a long time. That means it’s matured over time and gives cities the best of both worlds—standardization and customization. Sound too good to be true? Let’s look at both sides in more detail.

Standardized Benefits

Over the years, document management system creators and practitioners have learned a lot about best practices that apply to all organizations. These best practices get baked into the software and you benefit from them without needing to customize. In fact, many of these standardized benefits feature items you may not have thought to include if you had created your own document management software requirements—and they come right out of the box.

  • Security: Modern document management systems keep information secure through encryption, strict authorization and permissions settings, and the ability to comply with laws and policies.
  • Storage: Often stored in the cloud, your electronic documents rest in a low-cost yet rigorously maintained set of data centers that eliminates your need to buy and maintain hardware. These storage benefits allow you to easily back up data, store large amounts of electronic documents at a low cost, and scan paper files for electronic upload.
  • Implementation: With a standardized document management system, implementation usually happens more quickly than with a customized solution.
  • Folder and file structures: Document management systems usually enforce folder and file structures that allow you to easily organize and find data. Unlike how document organization gets confusing when you manually handle it on your computer, a document management system will help guide you toward organizing your information in a structure that makes sense to all users.
  • Workflows: With workflows, documents are guided through a series of steps such as drafting, editing, reviewing, and approving. Workflows help you follow a quality control process for documents.
  • Search: Similar to looking up something on Google, document management systems offer search tools that make it easy to find files. You can either search for documents based on keywords that you’ve tagged onto certain documents or you can search for phrases within documents. Search algorithms also work on the backend to help bring up the most relevant items first in a list of search results.

Customized Benefits

While standardized, document management software also offers customized benefits that are relevant to cities.

  • Automatic filing of documents: You can set up rules for filing documents that happen automatically. For example, cities can apply their record retention schedules to specific documents to make sure they are filed, stored, and purged according to state law and city ordinance.
  • Document organization: While the software provides some standardized structure as noted above, you can also customize the organization of your documents. For example, you may want to set up different document management repositories for each city department that have unique organization, rules, and workflows.
  • Dashboard: You are able to customize the dashboard you see after logging into your document management system. For example, your dashboard may only show your to-dos, your most recently opened documents, and links to your most accessed document folders. You can customize dashboards in a way that applies to all users or you can allow users to tweak their own dashboards.
  • Application integration: When setting up your document management system, your IT staff or vendor can help you integrate with important applications. One common application integration is with Microsoft Office. In that case, you can open and create Microsoft Word, Excel, or PowerPoint files within your document management system without having to separately open those Microsoft applications.
  • Look and feel: While look and feel may seem the least of your worries, it shouldn’t get overlooked. For example, you can customize the look and feel of your document management system so that it contains your city logo and colors to create a personalized touch. Look and feel is a small but important detail that allows people to log into something every day that appears pleasant and fun to use.

With document management software, you absolutely can have it both ways—customizing it for your city while enjoying standardized benefits baked into the software. It helps to have IT staff or a vendor work with you on the technical aspects to make sure that you’re properly customizing your document management software in a way that meets your needs and complies with the law.

Questions about document management software? Reach out to us today with questions.

Thursday, July 28, 2016
Nathan Eisner, COO

Nathan EisnerYou most likely have city employees who work at departmental sites that are separate from your office building. At the very least, they check emails on their smartphones. Are you finding it difficult to support employees who work across separate sites? Could it be that your IT staff or vendor hasn’t kept up with the pace of technology?

Department heads and staff at these remote sites grow frustrated because their technology is essentially broken—and responses to technical issues are very slow. A modernized helpdesk remains inexpensive and yet accommodates the needs of a remote site workforce. If you’re evaluating whether or not your helpdesk meets these needs, then consider the following areas where they must succeed.

1. 24/7/365 Support

Obviously, time comes into play when supporting city workers. It’s not uncommon that staff need help with their laptops, smartphones, and tablets before and after normal workday hours. Also, servers may fail at two in the morning or a night shift officer may need support when encountering an IT issue. An IT helpdesk can’t go home at the end of a workday and return the next morning. They must remain available to handle IT problems 24/7/365.

2. Multiple Devices

Employees will need help with laptops, smartphones, tablets, printers, and other machines spanning many devices and operating systems. An IT helpdesk cannot limit itself to only a select few devices such as workstations in the office. A wide breadth of knowledge and experience with both old and new devices, operating systems, and applications is critical in supporting the needs of cities as technology continues to rapidly change.

3. Security

Any modern IT helpdesk helping remote employees must have security down to a science. While serving remote sites, your helpdesk can help with making sure:

  • Firewalls are manually “hardened”—which just means that any entryways to your servers and workstations from the outside world (such as hackers) are closed off unless needed by authorized users.
  • Network accounts are only set up and accessed by authorized users.
  • Users are authenticated when contacting helpdesk and gaining access to applications.
  • Users have the correct permissions and rights to access certain types of information within databases and applications.
  • The city logs information about user activity in order to help document data access and diagnose issues.

4. Remote Sessions

An essential element of remote help is the use of remote helpdesk sessions. That’s when an IT engineer will temporarily request access to your computer so that they can help resolve a specific issue as if they were physically present. Whatever software your helpdesk chooses with which to conduct remote helpdesk sessions needs to be secure and non-intrusive so the user remains aware when support is engaged. Remote sessions can even take place with smartphones and tablets.


If after taking a look through these four areas you realize that you’ve got some holes in your IT helpdesk, then work with your IT staff or vendor to address these gaps. Some of these elements may seem out of your reach or like overkill (such as a 24/7/365 helpdesk), but they’re really not. IT helpdesks have evolved as quickly as the technology you now hold in your hands. If you want to better serve or enable your employees, then a modern IT helpdesk is a must.

Evaluating IT helpdesk options for your city? Reach out to us with any questions.

Thursday, July 21, 2016
Victoria Boyko, Software Development Consultant

Victoria BoykoMany cities post minutes to their websites. However, questions remain about how to best do it. Currently, there are no specific laws that require cities to provide minutes on their website (because all cities do not have websites). As a result, cities may not post minutes to their website at all, they may post them irregularly, or they may post them in ways that make it hard for citizens to find.

While not a legal requirement, posting minutes to your city’s website is a helpful service to provide your citizens. This activity hits upon many things that are important to cities and citizens—government transparency, information sharing, and civic participation. Plus, sharing minutes on your website gets your information out to the most people in the quickest, most convenient fashion.

Use this checklist to see if you’re posting your minutes properly and making them easy for citizens to find.

Publish approved minutes at a minimum.

If you have a website, at least post your approved minutes when they are ready. However, you also have the option to post draft minutes before they are approved if you’d like to quickly share information with citizens. Make sure you clearly indicate if you are posting draft minutes versus approved minutes.

Post your minutes in a timely fashion, and keep them indefinitely on your website.

Similar to how you normally distribute minutes, you can follow a similar process for your website. Either post the draft minutes to your website (such as within two business days of the meeting) or wait to post the approved minutes. Once posted, keep the minutes on your website indefinitely—similar to how you keep them indefinitely in your city’s archive.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for a city to fail to keep minutes updated on their website. That can be frustrating for citizens. Make the task of posting minutes to your website as routine as your normal drafting and approving of your minutes as dictated by law and ordinance.

On your meeting minutes webpage, at least show the current year’s minutes, previous year’s minutes, and a link to archived minutes with all previous years.

To keep your minutes webpage uncluttered and easy to use, consider at least showing links to:

  • The current year’s minutes.
  • The previous year’s minutes.
  • An archive of all other minutes.

By highlighting the current and previous year on your minutes webpage, you make it easier for people to find these most commonly searched for minutes. It is less likely that people will search for old minutes, so you can create a link to an archived minutes page for that purpose. Many cities also just put up links on their minutes webpage for each year, which is also fine—as long as the current and previous year’s minutes are prominent and easy to find.

Make it easy for people to find and access minutes from any webpage.

Your city website likely has navigation links at the top of each page that never change—such as Home, Government, Departments, Business, Community. etc. Make sure that people can easily find minutes through these links. For example, there may be a link right on the Home page for Agendas and Minutes. Or, there may possibly be a link under Government to the City Council page where the Agendas and Minutes link could be found. Either would be easy to find.

On the other hand, if a person can’t find an easy path to your minutes then you are making them hard to locate. Grab three or four people who don’t know your website well and ask them to try finding your minutes. If they’re all having trouble, then consider rearranging how you get people to this information on your website.

Label the minutes by year, month, and day, and publish in PDF form.

When people look for specific minutes, they will look for the year, month, and day. Label files with that information so that filenames communicate what the document actually contains. Also, minutes need to be presented in an unaltered, official, and final form. A PDF is usually the best publishing format for this requirement. Publishing a PDF is the best way to ensure that you are offering the official, final version and it's also the most convenient type of file for people to download and print. A PDF is a universal file format that works on any computer and it's usually preferred by city clerks.

Overall, publishing minutes to your website is one of the services you can provide your citizens who primarily access information through the internet. When doing so, it’s best to follow your current laws and ordinances, make it easy for people to find minutes, and provide the files in the most convenient format. If you follow the tips above, then you’re scoring some major service and transparency points with your citizens.

Questions about posting minutes to your website? Reach out to us today.

Thursday, July 14, 2016
Brian Ocfemia, Technical Account Manager

Brian OcfemiaAs we talk to cities at various events and conferences, we sometimes hear that they don’t have a centralized place to access shared files—such as a server or a location in the cloud. That means cities may still store important files on individual desktop computers. Let’s take a step back and look at three major risks in such a situation.

Risk #1: Data backup and disaster recovery

Storing important files on a single computer means that if something happens to that computer then you will lose all of your files. You may occasionally back up files on an external hard drive or flash drive, but relying on a manual process that can be skipped or performed incorrectly is a risk—especially because you may not regularly test those backups. Plus, you’re also relying on a single person’s computer—and that single person may accidentally or purposely delete files without you ever knowing they’re gone. No matter how much you trust that person, they may act as the sole owner of those files—not your city.

Risk #2: Security

A single computer isn’t guaranteed to make sure your files are consistently secured against threats. Employee error (such as clicking on a malicious website link or email attachment) is one of the most common sources of viruses and malware which opens your city up to hackers. With that kind of security hole, a hacker may steal your information or prevent you from accessing your files. Weak or irregularly updated antivirus and antimalware software on a single person’s desktop computer just isn’t enough to adequately protect important city information. No matter how well-intentioned, a single user presents too many security risks if files are primarily stored on their personal desktop computer.

Risk #3: Access

City employees shouldn’t have to rely on one person to give them access to important city files. What if that person is sick or on vacation? What if they get fired or leave their job? Any user who has been granted authorized access to important files should be able to access them in a centralized, neutral location. A single user also has the potential to be arbitrary, whimsical, unavailable, or difficult about giving access to important files—which can be a hindrance to productivity, operations, or answering open records requests.

So, what should you do instead of storing files on a personal desktop computer?

No matter how small your city, you still need to create a place where electronic files are centrally maintained and secured—and where users with authorized access can find these files. Some options (depending on your budget and technology limitations) include:

  • Onsite server with network drives. Essentially, this server works like a central computer that authorized users at your city can access. You store your files here, city staff can access those files just as if they were on their computer, and your IT staff or vendor helps maintain and secure the server.
  • Online file storage services. These services exist in the cloud which means—with the help of your IT staff or vendor—they are secure and accessible (only to authorized users) from any device or location. Use business-class versions of these services—not the consumer-grade versions.
  • Document management system. A document management system will give you a business-class way to store, search, and securely access documents. With a document management system, you’re able to not only centrally store and manage documents but you also get to tag, label, and organize them in ways that will help your day-to-day work (such as more easily responding to open records requests). These systems contain a lot of capabilities that are especially important to city clerks.

If you still want to store files on a computer, then a newer computer will generally offer a lot of room. But that’s still not wise—no matter how much space that computer offers. What’s more important is where the files are located, protecting the files from data loss, and securing who has access to the files. Limiting file access to a single person’s desktop computer is just way too risky for a city.

Questions about file storage? Reach out to us today.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016
Dave Mims, CEO
Dave MimsAt the Georgia Municipal Assocation's (GMA) 2016 Annual Convention, GMA's Kelli Bennett interviewed me about IT in a Box. Watch the video to learn more about what IT in a Box includes and why these services help cities save money, modernize their technology, and serve citizens.

 
Thursday, July 07, 2016
John Miller, Senior Consultant

John MillerMany cities—especially smaller cities—often ask us if they need to “go digital.” By that, they’re usually asking if they should transition their information from paper to electronic, start centrally storing and managing electronic information in the cloud, and modernize their technology to help with accessing that information such as upgrading their email system, document management system, or website.

These are good questions for smaller cities. After all, they have minimal staff who are strapped for time and working with limited budgets. If going digital is a convenience, then smaller cities could probably push it off to the side.

However, it’s clear that going digital is a necessity. And not going digital leads to a variety of critical problems. Think of it like carrying insurance. You don’t think about your insurance a lot during your day-to-day work, but it’s there when a disaster hits. Let’s look at some critical areas where “going digital” is a necessity.

Data Backup and Disaster Recovery

With paper, it’s very difficult to assure yourself that your information will survive a fire, a flood, or a tornado. We’ve even encountered situations where paper with valuable information has aged so much that it starts to crumble or termites have gotten at it. All it takes is one incident like a fire and your valuable city information is destroyed.

By scanning your paper information and turning it into electronic information, you are able to protect it from disaster. With offsite data backup, you can store that information in a data center far from your city and know that you will be able to access that information even after the worst disaster.

Information Access and Retrieval

Quite simply, it’s easier to find electronic information. Once you are digital, you can find important documents and information in seconds rather than spending lots of time sifting through paper records. Modern document management systems help you label and organize documents so that they are easy to find. Similar to how you search for things on Google, you can search for documents and information in the same way. This capability helps with compliance (see below) and also makes your time-strapped staff much happier when they can find information quicker.

Information Portability

By portability, we mean the ability to share information with others. It’s fairly standard today for many government entities and businesses to share and receive digital information. In fact, you may even find that electronic sharing and retrieval of information is required by some entities. Even if it’s not required, it’s way more convenient to citizens, businesses, and government entities to offer electronic information. Whether you post information directly to your website, offer it on a PDF, or have it stored electronically at your city in a document management system, you can easily send and share information with authorized people when it’s in electronic form.

Security

Often overlooked, going digital helps with security. Sure, with paper you can lock rooms and prohibit physical access to file cabinets. But it’s not uncommon that access to city assets can be easily—in fact, very easily—obtained on-site. When your information is digital, your IT staff or vendor can make sure it’s only accessible to authorized people.

Open Records Compliance

Open records laws, regulations, and policies evolve each year so that expectations related to information access, retrieval, and security continue to grow. With paper, you risk slowly responding to open records requests. You may also have the opposite problem of not purging documents on a regular schedule. As a result, you might store decades-old documents that you’re not legally required to keep.

Going digital better equips you to respond to open records requests in a timely fashion, set up automated processes that ensure you’re following record retention schedules, purge documents that you legally no longer need, and back up data in case of disaster.

Going digital strikes at the heart of many necessities around information today—security, compliance, backup, and ease of access. So even if you’re a smaller city, you need to consider digitizing any information you have that currently resides on paper along with modernizing your technology enough to be able to easily access and share that information.

Questions about going digital? Reach out to us with any questions.

Thursday, June 30, 2016
Dave Mims, CEO

Dave MimsYou spoke. We listened. Over the past year, cities have told us that their requirements for data backup and video archiving grow more and more immense. For example, the requirement for many cities to capture, record, and store body camera video has drastically increased the amount of storage space they need. In fact, some cities (such as in Georgia after a new law passed in 2016) must store that information or face legal penalties. Also, cities (such as those in Arkansas) are feeling more pressure from state legislatures about strictly adhering to laws and best practices related to cybersecurity.

Overall, there’s just too much at risk today to neglect a city’s electronic storage capabilities and underlying information security. Here are some new features of IT in a Box that help address these concerns:

Data Backup Archiving

We already provide cities with onsite data backup storage for quick data recovery and unlimited offsite data backup storage for disaster recovery. That now includes storing and archiving all versions of your important files, documents, and data. Archiving is the long-term storage and indefinite retention of your backed up data. This archived information is always accessible in case you need it (such as for an open records request).

Video Archiving

Cities tell us that body camera and squad car video storage costs are a big concern for them—and storage needs for video data will only continue to grow at an increasingly rapid pace. IT in a Box saves cities money with our unlimited offsite video storage and retention. That means:

  • No more buying additional expensive onsite storage for video. With IT in a Box, you can now keep your most recent videos onsite for quick access while we archive all of your videos offsite for long-term access.
  • As the quantity of your squad car and body camera video footage continues to rapidly grow, your storage costs do not change over time.

Policy and Compliance

To best protect against cyberattacks, our IT in a Box staff will help you adopt policies and best practices to educate staff and make sure your technology helps you comply with state law. In addition to staff training, we shore up any security holes by securing, documenting, regularly testing, and proactively managing all of your technology including:

  • Applications and systems
  • Vendor access
  • Network access
  • Wireless access
  • Physical access
  • User access
  • Remote access
  • And more

For Arkansas specifically, we help cities become compliant with the state’s Legislative Audit.

Questions about these new services? Reach out to us with questions.

Learn more about IT in a Box.

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