A recent article in the Guardian featured an interview with Dominic Campbell, the idealist who started FutureGov. As someone who worked in local government early in his career, he grew jaded by many things—one of which was IT budget bloat.
The article explains some of Campbell’s key frustrations:
Campbell, 32, is scathing about the public sector IT establishment. He first came across the corporate purveyors of costly, grandiose systems as a local government trainee in Barnet in 2002. [...] [Campbell says,] “...I became aware of these huge, expensive IT systems which were not value for money, which were not doing the job they claimed they would do, were slow, and involved ridiculous amounts of time telling people they were stupid, because they couldn't use a stupid system." Local government's fatal attraction to these IT systems (he describes them as "one big rip-off") was symptomatic of the reasons why he left the municipal world.”
While he’s talking about local government in the United Kingdom, the same problems exist for local government in the United States. Largely, it’s a lingering aftereffect from the IT explosion of the late 1990s and 2000s when organizations were conditioned to think of their problems as only solvable by “IT systems.” These “IT systems” were billed as “solutions” by vendors looking to make LOTS of money—but often without precisely solving an organization’s needs.
Today, many of these systems are expensive overkill, and they’ve been disruptively challenged by current technology trends (such as cloud computing). However, if it is not your job to keep up with the speed of technology, you (and many vendors that want to persuade you) may still think a giant “IT system” is the answer to your needs.
To help you better prevent system bloat in your IT budget, here are some key places to assess what you currently have and see if some cost savings are in order:
This is probably one of the easiest areas to cut costs, especially if you haven’t reexamined your website in the last three to five years.
Even if you are using a very good tape, disk, or other manual backup system, you’re wasting money. Automating data backup and getting rid of physical storage devices helps you decrease liability and save money. We also find that these cumbersome and costly manual systems often fail basic data backup testing and auditing requirements, usually because the manual aspect introduces too many possible points of failure. People forget to back up the data, fail to test the backups, or handle storage media improperly.
With so many powerful and low cost email cloud options offered by major companies (Google, Microsoft), it’s often overkill to have your own email servers and licenses. While we like Microsoft, we recommend even getting rid of your Microsoft Exchange servers and using their cloud solutions instead. The cost savings, scalability, and security is much better than the hassle of managing your own servers.
Be careful about bloat here. There are many document management systems that are simply overkill. We recently wrote an article discussing some ways to evaluate a document management system vendor. Basically, you need a cost-effective and agile solution to:
If you sense that you are paying too much or that there are zillions of document management features you’ve never used, you want to shop around.
If you are paying a large chunk of money for conference call software, it’s likely a waste. There are many free or low-cost systems with the high quality software and communications technology you need to conduct conference calls. Often, cities are sold expensive conference call systems with excessive features that they never use. A trusted IT vendor can help recommend some free or low-cost software that meets the needs of cities.
Of course, there are many other line-of-business systems you should challenge (such as accounting, public safety, court, etc.) that may be wasting your money. But the areas discussed above are some of the foundational, key areas of technology spending where we often find most sources of IT bloat. By cutting this bloat, you save taxpayer money while also increasing the return on your technology investments.
Contact us if you’d like to discuss any of these areas in more detail.
Recently, Fairfax County, Virginia experienced a notable failure in its online payment system when the website went down on the day of an important tax deadline. According to the article, the county handled the situation poorly—telling citizens they would still be charged late fees despite the online payment option being unavailable. Obviously, citizens were angry. The county later relented and provided an extension.
With revenue and money on the line, the failure of an online payment system can be one of a city’s most embarrassing and noticeable failures. Many online payment vendors exist, and the breadth of choices and costs can be overwhelming. On the most basic level, though, a city cannot simply choose the cheapest vendor or be wowed by features. At its core, you have to know it’s going to work and truly serve citizens in a high quality fashion.
We have provided ten questions to ask your online payments vendor—whether you’re already using one or you’re looking for options. There are plenty of questions to ask beyond these—especially considering your business processes, desired future payment capabilities, and specific features—but these questions cover the basic fundamentals that are too often glossed over when looking for an online payments solution.
While we can only speculate about the source of Fairfax County’s online payment issues, from our experience we’ve seen similar problems occur when there is poor website hosting, lack of planning for peak use times, and a lack of strong technical maintenance and support. These kinds of problems are preventable if you have the right IT infrastructure in place to handle your customer demand.
Contact us if you’d like to discuss online payment systems in further detail.
A few months ago, we wrote a blog post about severe weather threats. Those continual threats highlight the need for every city to consider and implement a serious data backup solution. Since that post, Hurricane Isaac came hurdling through the Gulf of Mexico and threatened many of the same areas that Hurricane Katrina compromised back in 2005. Right now, Hurricane Sandy is projected to hit New England and threaten many of its cities.
Too many cities still have ineffective data backup and disaster recovery solutions. They may still use tape backup, manually back up data with disks or tape, or keep all of their servers onsite. They may consider an offsite backup solution as storing data in a different building or in a bank vault a few miles away. Considering the nature of disasters, these solutions are not good enough to meet the high standards of modern data backup and disaster recovery best practices.
Instead of simply finger wagging about best practices, let’s imagine a nightmare scenario and how it would play out. Then, let’s examine that same scenario through an “ideal” lens—that you can easily make a reality.
Let’s say a disaster affected your city. It doesn’t matter what—a hurricane, severe thunderstorms, wildfire, a tornado, fire, or theft can all have the same impact. These are also relatively common scenarios, and not hard to imagine. We’ll assume you’re doing at least some data backup. (If you aren’t backing up any of your data, it’s clear what would happen in case of a disaster).
Let’s say that all of your servers are located onsite. Your city clerk takes tape backups to a bank vault every week. In the disaster, your servers are lost or destroyed. They are no more. Based upon our experiences from assessing many cities over the years, here is a sample scenario detailing what you can expect to happen:
Finally, eight weeks after the disaster occurred, 70% of the city’s data is now running and functional. But eight weeks is a long time. The city wound up losing 30% of its data, was out of commission for 3-4 weeks while the hardware arrived, and then spent 5 more weeks until the 70% of the saved data could be used with full functionality.
You never need to find yourself in this situation. Let’s look at the ideal—which is actually reality for many cities following disaster recovery best practices.
Your situation: You have onsite and offsite data backup. It runs automatically and is handled by an IT vendor. You test often and simulate a disaster on a quarterly basis. Your disaster recovery plan covers all possible disaster scenarios, from a simple server failure to a full catastrophe.
In the disaster, your servers are lost or destroyed. They are no more. Based upon our experiences assessing cities over the years (especially from the cities we work with), here is a sample scenario detailing what you can expect to happen:
One week after the disaster occurred, the city lost only a miniscule portion of its data (any data that was not saved after the last hourly snapshot at 11 a.m., Thursday). The city only had to worry about electricity. Once electricity was restored, the city just needed Internet access for most services (those based in the cloud) and only waited 24 hours for its onsite non-cloud servers to arrive. Within a week, it was almost as if a disaster had not occurred.
Some simple investments in data backup and disaster recovery ensure that a city is a leader—up, functional, and helping citizens from the minute the disaster occurs. When a city loses all or most of its data, it cannot help citizens when they need the most help. Make sure you have a workable, comprehensive disaster recovery program in place. Contact us if you feel your disaster recovery is lacking.
The City of Flowery Branch, Ga. is a cozy community nestled on the banks of Lake Lanier with its history dating back to the late 1800s. Despite the town’s historical charm, Flowery Branch needed its network infrastructure to catch up to modern technology.
Antiquated and unreliable, Flowery Branch’s IT services concerned city officials. The stability and security of the city’s email, server hosting and data backup affected city operations and jeopardized the ability to recover from a disaster.
However, costs to implement and maintain technology upgrades also alarmed Flowery Branch’s city leaders. In their technology assessment, hardware, software and labor expenses to upgrade technology were higher than what the city had budgeted. It seemed like a lose-lose situation.
Flowery Branch engaged with the Georgia Municipal Association and utilized its “IT in a Box” service.
Powered by Sophicity, “IT in a Box” is a complete IT solution for cities and local governments. The service includes a website, data backup, offsite storage, email, document management, Microsoft Office for desktops, server and desktop management, vendor management and a seven-day a week helpdesk.
By leveraging vendor management, which is included with IT in a Box, Flowery Branch’s telecom contract was renegotiated creating a potential savings of $203,886.90 over a 10-year period. In the first year alone, the city saved $39,035 (or 48 percent) of the costs typically spent modernizing a network of its environment and size. These savings helped Flowery Branch stabilize its technology and create a predictable IT budget.
Additionally, “IT in a Box” helped Flowery Branch:
“The City of Flowery Branch certainly feels as though we gained a partner in working through our IT issues. Sophicity has been responsive in showing us options that made operational and fiscal sense.” — City Manager Bill Andrew
If you're interested in learning more, contact us about IT in a Box.
Print-friendly version of the Flowery Branch, Georgia IT in a Box case study.
Sophicity is an IT services and consulting company providing technology solutions to city governments and municipal leagues. Among the services Sophicity delivers in "IT in a Box" are a website, data backup, offsite storage, email, document management, Microsoft Office for desktops, server and desktop management, vendor management, and a seven-day a week helpdesk. Read more about IT in a Box.
While a federal law does not necessarily signify any local government requirements any time soon, cloud computing may soon become a requirement at the federal level. A new law (the 2012 Cloud Computing Act) presented to the United States Senate in September mostly outlines the definition of the cloud as it pertains to criminal and civil protections against unauthorized access. But NextGov highlighted some important verbiage at the end of the law.
Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this act and not less frequently than once each year thereafter for four years, the head of each federal agency described in section 901(b) of title 31, United States Code, shall, consistent with Cloud First policy outlined in the document of the Office of Management and Budget titled "Federal Cloud Computing Strategy" and dated Feb. 8, 2011, submit to the administrator of the Office of Electronic Government and Information Technology of the Office of Management and Budget a three-year forecast of the plans of the agency relating to the procurement of cloud computing services and support relating to such services.
While some in the media have noted problems with the law (scope, wording, potential overregulation), we tend to view such legislative attempts—whether they succeed or fail—as signs of things to come. And the law does highlight some of the key reasons to invest in the cloud.
In addition, we’ve also seen cloud computing alleviate some of the worries that the law talks about related to data privacy, retention, and security:
Despite some lingering issues about the law (such as its vague definition of cloud computing), know that you’re heading on the right track if you place more of your services in the cloud. The cloud saves you money, increases efficiency, and helps you avoid many future liability issues. And eventually, it may even be the law.
If you'd like to discuss these issues in more detail, feel free to contact us.
Lately, a lot of articles are discussing the pros and cons of teleworking and employees bringing their own device to use at work. Since these activities are such a cultural change for organizations, these same debates are probably taking place at your city. In this post, we review some of the most recent discussion points and guide you toward what you need to be thinking about concerning telework.
A variety of government technology publications recently wrote about a telework calculator created by Govloop and HP. By individual or team, the telework calculator shows (roughly) how much you might save by taking into account:
Not only does the calculator point out an annual cost savings per employee but it also shows productivity gained in terms of hours and money. While the calculator can only provide rough estimates, these calculations do accurately represent the kinds of indirect benefits that a technology upgrade and shift to teleworking can have on cities.
We have written about the benefits of telework before, so it’s interesting to note some reinforcement of our ideas by this fact (shared on Govloop after you calculate your savings): “The average employer will pay nearly $10,000 per employee towards energy, real estate and production costs each year.” If you can even shave a fraction of these employee costs through teleworking, you’re saving real dollars in your city budget.
Unless you purchase computers for all employees upon which they can only perform city business, then your employees are probably using their own desktop computers, laptops, and smartphones to do their telework. While this may save money and ease the act of teleworking, the dark side of this trend is poor security.
Government Technology’s recent article is representative of these concerns, pointing out that securing and supporting these devices is creating a headache for IT staff. In addition, the bring your own device trend can also create a headache for city administration. How much is a city obligated to offset the costs of teleworking? That means:
In the past, we’ve discussed our recommendations about employees bringing their own device. We believe in enabling teleworking, but you need to be strict about employees’ personal devices.
Read more about these topics from some of our past articles:
Why Teleworking Works for Local Government
How City Employees Can Bring Their Own Devices Without Risk
Dear Local Government: Be Enthused About Cloud Computing
If you have questions about teleworking and employees bringing their own devices to work, please contact us.
It’s easy for non-technical people to zone out those who work in information technology. IT changes all of the time, involves decades of in-depth knowledge, and uses an “in the know” speak that is hard for non-technical people to crack. In the business of local government, that knowledge and language divide can be harmful if each side does not understand each other.
Without great communication with your IT staff or vendor, all of your technology investments do not mean a thing. That may sound like an extreme statement, but plenty of articles show that communication-related breakdowns lead to failed technology progress.
Communication, of course, is a two-way street. Based on our many years of experience working with cities, we offer up some communications tips that you can use to test your current IT vendors and staff. Then, assuming you have a top-notch staff or vendor, we’ll share some advice about what kind of communication makes them happy.
Information technology staff or vendors can often seem intimidating and unapproachable because of their level of knowledge. They throw around complicated terms and are technical masters of some of your core business systems. But that doesn’t mean there should be a communication barrier between you and them.
Ultimately, your IT staff or vendor should be able to tell you why they’re doing something, help you when problems arise, and report to you in understandable language.
On the flip side, you might wonder if there are things you can do to improve your communication with IT staff and vendors. Based on our experiences working with some great customers (including many superb cities), here are some tips you can apply when communicating with your IT gurus.
Like any relationship, communications are not perfect all of the time. But when we notice both parties apply the above advice, most communications issues are averted. That’s why it’s important to find a vendor or IT staff with business acumen, mid- to senior-level helpdesk experience, and full transparency about results. If you have that foundation, then all you need to do is engage your trusted staff or vendor fully by listening to recommendations and being part of their ongoing service.
To put our communications to the test, feel free to contact us.
Back in August 2012, Government Technology and the Center for Digital Government held the 2012 Best of the Web Awards. The first place city website winner was Louisville, Kentucky. For a city of about 750,000 people (and a metro area of about 1.4 million people), it may seem like Louisville’s magnitude has little in common with the website needs of smaller cities.
However, a recent interview with Beth Niblock, CIO of the City of Louisville, suggests that there are some ideas that can transfer over to smaller city websites—and still fit your budget.
In her GovTech video interview, Niblock discusses three important city website features:
All of these features are important no matter what your city’s size. We work with even the smallest cities to make sure they have search and social media capabilities on their websites. The City of Oakwood, Georgia is an excellent example of a smaller city providing both a convenient website search option along with an easy way to connect on Facebook.
To add to Niblock’s excellent city website takeaways, we want to note some other great features of Louisville’s website that even the smallest cities need to have.
If you want to learn more about how these essential website features are within reach of your budget, please contact us.
Last month, we wrote about the benefits of document management for city clerks. But one benefit that often gets lost in the discussion is security.
People often think of more pressing pain points when it comes to considering a document management solution—finding and accessing files, getting rid of paper-based systems, and better preparing for audits and open records requests. But security matters especially when you have documents that people want to steal. City documents fall squarely into this camp.
A recent article on Business Insider noted security as one of the five reasons for considering a document management system. We agree, and this Business Insider article inspired us to elaborate on the security component of document management.
If you are thinking about switching to a document management system, these additional areas related to security will help you make the case.
However, while these are security benefits of a document management system, all vendors are not created equal. Ask the following questions as you assess the security component of your document management vendor.
Finally, also consider your own security policies. No vendor or IT staff can account for every security breach—especially breaches related to how you create and share information from a business process standpoint. Employees must be careful about where and how they access documents, giving out or sharing passwords, and understanding the nature of scams and phishing attacks.
For more about securing your document management system, contact us.
When you see highly publicized attacks by hacking groups such as Anonymous on some of the biggest targets in the world, it can be easy to think there isn’t much one can do about website hacking. But while some of the world’s best hackers may seem hard to defeat if they decide to come after you, the reality is much more mundane—and preventable.
Groups like Anonymous are rare and few, but website hacking is common and prolific. Mediocre and below average hackers all over the world take advantage of poorly secured websites. The mistakes that organizations make in protecting their websites open them up to cyber liability.
Local government must especially be vigilant. Here is a scary but all too real story about the City of Haines City, Florida.
In 2012, citizens trying to reach the City’s website were redirected to a Turkish gaming site. This was the second time in a year that had happened. The results?
Unfortunately, we have seen similar hacking situations happen quite a number of times with cities. They usually fall into two common scenarios.
Cities outsource the hosting and management of their website to a cheap vendor. With technology constantly changing, it is often difficult to know what criteria should be used to evaluate a website hosting company. As a result, many decisions about website hosting vendors are based solely on price. Low-cost website vendors often host websites on servers located in other countries. The cheap vendors are cheap because they cut corners. Thus, the city’s website is not properly managed or secured.
Cities host their websites in-house with insufficient management and maintenance. Sometimes, city IT staff wear so many hats that it is difficult for them to keep up with the website server with regularity and efficiency. It’s easy with an overloaded schedule (or if IT staff are junior-level and inexperienced) to not secure a website properly, update security patches, and keep up with server maintenance.
Whether a city is cutting corners by hiring a cheap vendor or if they are overburdening their IT staff, the end results are expensive. When citizens cannot reliably access a city’s website:
There are some simple tips you can use to prevent most of the world’s website hackers from turning your city website into a fraudulent Turkish gaming site (or any other type of fraudulent site).
Remember, city websites are an important link to the citizens in your community and the businesses that generate a majority of your tax base. Plus, city websites often process financial transactions which allow citizens to make payments online using sensitive information. City websites have to be secure. The hackers might be good, but you need to be a step ahead.
Contact us if you’d like to discuss these issues. And stayed tuned for Part III of this series, which will cover virus liability and antivirus precautions.
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