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CitySmart Blog

Thursday, February 7, 2013
Dave Mims, CEO

Cities are understandably wary about the idea of website templates versus a custom designed website. A custom designed website sounds more serious and sophisticated, and templates sound like they would restrict how your website would look. As a result, cities often decide to go with custom design.

The unfortunate thing about custom design is that it’s often overkill and it increases the cost of your website. In addition, template websites have improved a great deal over the past few years. There are more choices in design, layout, basic customization, and modules than ever before, and many inexpensive templates have been created by top-notch professional designers.

If you’re considering a website redesign and have not considered a template website, here are some aspects that may convince you that saving money can also lead to a great city website.

  1. You get to skip expensive custom design. You immediately save money and time by choosing to customize an already created design template. Since the template is already built, most of the major website design and development work has already been completed. If you were building a website from the ground up, you would be looking at many weeks and months of design and development time until you would be able to see the final end product. With a template, you customize it a bit and then it’s done.
  2. You don’t have to mess around with website coding. A common barrier that prevents city staff from working directly with a city website is when it is overly technical to use. We still see many cities using a webmaster because their website needs coding whenever an update or change is made. That limits a city’s ability to update website content. With a template, you can easily update content within different areas of the website without having to know any coding.
  3. Your website will look clean and professional. It’s unfortunate that many city websites still look sloppy and unprofessional because of a bad or obsolete design. A template enforces a consistent look across your entire website. No worries about the website colors randomly changing, layouts looking completely different from page to page, or inconsistencies in the navigation menu confusing users. Simply cleaning up your image with a website template can do wonders for your city’s public face.
  4. You can use templates based on what other cities use. You’re not the first city that needs pages for online payment processing, event calendars, city council agendas, or city departments. With the right vendor experienced at crafting template-based websites for cities, you can get set up quickly with pages ready to go for city hall, public safety, parks and recreation, and many other typical city departments and services.
  5. You can easily add pages and modules when needed. A good template website is crafted by experienced designers and used by many businesses, organizations, and government agencies. That means they are built to be adaptable. Need to add or delete pages? Add a calendar or online payment option? A website template makes it easy to scale up and down depending on your needs. With a custom designed website, those kinds of changes are expensive and will take development time.

While templates can be limiting for extremely large cities, they are absolutely sufficient for most small and medium cities. From our experience, templates tend to improve the professional look and feel of a website, increase user-friendliness, and enhance the ability to scale up and down when needed. We recommend considering a website template that has been successfully used by cities for many years, since you’ll know they work.

To talk templates in more detail, feel free to contact us.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Clint Nelms, COO

When it comes to buying computer hardware, many small businesses can sometimes still go to Best Buy or a similar store and pick up the computers they need. For cities, such a move is expensive, risky, and a waste of time. Even if you are a small city, your hardware needs are specific and particular, and you need to make sure you have an assessment and purchasing process in place to get the best, most cost-efficient hardware.

Vendors are often biased toward certain hardware manufacturers, so you also don’t want to blindly trust one vendor or hardware manufacturer. Any automatic or blind purchasing may mean spending too much money and failing to meet your city’s specific IT needs. Here are some recommendations from our hardware assessment and purchasing processes that you should implement at your city.

  1. Never purchase retail. Purchase direct from the hardware manufacturer or a certified reseller. First, it’s simply cheaper to purchase direct. Second, you will be able to take advantage of government discounts. Many people at cities don’t often realize how much they can minimize overall hardware spend and maximize municipal discounts to keep hardware purchasing costs as low as possible.
  2. Perform a needs assessment. People often buy computers impulsively, assuming that the latest and greatest computer will do everything they need. But that means buying computers with excessive features or, on the flip side, ones that lack the capacity for city employees to do their jobs. Before you purchase, work with your IT staff or IT vendor to ask, “What do I need to do?” Understand the minimum standards your hardware will need, where your current hardware is falling short, and what special needs your staff might have. And make sure your staff or vendor stays hardware-agnostic.
  3. Assess your server needs. As some of the most complex hardware you own, servers need special attention. From our experience, servers often need the most assessment and require significant upgrades when a city is considering new hardware purchases. For slow, failing, or near-capacity servers, there are many cost-effective options depending on your needs. This is where you might consider cloud solutions, data centers, and hardware you still want to have on site. Server hardware must also handle the complexity of your networking needs and demands.
  4. Assess staff workload for personal workstations. One computer’s size does not fit all. Too many times, we’ve seen a city purchase the same workstations for everyone despite staff having different needs. Some employees just use basic Internet browsing and Microsoft Office. Some might need laptops since they are on the go as part of their job. Some might have to use intensive databases, such as accessing and manipulating GIS data. You can make sure that specific city staff have exactly the workstations they need, while employees who only have basic or limited needs aren’t using up valuable hardware with expensive, unused features and software.
  5. Assess portability. In purchasing hardware, cities often overlook tablets, smartphones, and cell phones. But as these kinds of hardware become more and more essential for doing one’s job, a portability assessment is just as important as the above assessments. Who needs a smartphone? Who just needs a basic cell phone? For example, you might consider giving city management and elected officials tablets and smartphones, while anyone who stays at city hall all day, every day, might not need portable hardware at all. With cities always tightening their budgets, this is an expense that can easily get out of control without a clear assessment.

When purchasing hardware, conducting a vendor-agnostic assessment is a great upfront investment of time. You’ll make sure you’re buying exactly the hardware you need, customized for your city. Plus, sourcing hardware from a variety of vendors allows you to get the lowest price once you’ve decided what you need. A needs assessment gives you a great negotiating position and allows vendors to effectively compete for your business, but if you don’t know what hardware you need then vendors can take advantage of you.

If you’d like to talk more about your hardware needs, please contact us.

Friday, February 1, 2013
Nathan Eisner, Network Manager

One trend we’ve been seeing at cities is a gradual improvement in how various city departments handle work orders. As cities move their servers and data backup into the cloud, as their websites improve, and as they start using more sophisticated document management and online payment systems, they find that improving the way they track work orders follows suit.

That’s because the same tracking and accountability for payments and documents becomes expected of work orders. Yet, many cities still use email, ill-fitting project management systems, and (yes) even post-it notes to keep track of customer service tickets and requests.

When cities talk to us about improving their work order systems, we often bring up the following five points in our discussions.

  1. Solidify your business processes. Despite often having business processes written down somewhere (usually in a binder on a shelf or in a hard-to-read PDF), people tend to follow their own processes. When they actually do the work, they do it the way they want. With a work order system, you can instead enforce specific business processes. For example, if a request comes in to fix a pothole, the work order system can enforce a time limit (e.g. 3 days) in which the pothole must be repaired.
  2. Track and follow-up on work orders. Work order systems allow for efficient tracking of customer service requests. One of the most common complaints that citizens have about cities is tracking and follow-up. They request that an issue be resolved, and then they never hear back. Calling the city again and again to inquire about the status of a request puts an annoying burden on citizens, and reflects poorly on the city. But if citizens or internal staff can check online about any work order, the system then lowers the amount of incoming phone calls and shows that you’re on top of every request.
  3. Hold people accountable. When a work order is clearly assigned to a specific person, there is nowhere to hide. Both from our experience and from studies we’ve read, holding people transparently accountable increases the likelihood of good work results. Work order systems assign customer service requests to individuals who then have a clear, objective list of tasks to complete. Red flags go off immediately when those work orders are not fulfilled on schedule, and customer service problems can be addressed sooner rather than later.
  4. Send out alerts and notifications. The great thing about automated systems is that they can give you automated alerts. Just like a good project management system, managers don’t have to bug employees constantly about the status of customer service requests. If you’re assigned some work, you will receive reminders about the deadline and notifications if it’s overdue. Managers can stay on top of issues proactively, and citizens can even receive updates about their requests.
  5. Provide 24/7 access. If people want to check a work order status outside normal business hours, or from home or a coffee shop, they can access the system whenever they want. City business often doesn’t work strictly from 9 to 5. Public works, public safety, city council meetings, and online payments all function after hours. If people need to check the status of customer service requests, quickly and while on the go, then a good work order system provides access to that information 24/7.

While a work order system may not seem revolutionary on the surface, it can have a huge impact at cities that traditionally just wing it with email and paper, or try to use Microsoft Outlook or a project management system in awkward ways. Your work order system does not have to be overly complex. It just has to be customized, streamlined, and built around your basic business processes to ensure that work is assigned, completed, tracked, and made transparent.

If you’d like to discuss work order systems in more detail, please contact us.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013
John Miller, Network Infrastructure Manager

Speaking as a vendor, we’d like to say that vendors mostly serve cities in the right ways and make sure that a city’s expensive investment in their services is put to good use. Sadly, we spend much of our time during the early part of a city engagement straightening out vendors who have been slacking off or taking advantage of cities.

What happens is that vendors get comfortable and complacent. They realize that cities (often long ago) made a long-term or large upfront investment. Trapped, they feel cities are committed to the arrangement. Vendors then often function on autopilot, focus more on upselling, and care mostly about renewing that contract every year. (That’s why you might only see your vendor face-to-face about once a year—around renewal time!)

From our experience, here are some ways we help cities with vendor management to help them save money, maximize their investment, and get vendors working more effectively and productively.

  1. We help cities define business objectives. This may seem counterintuitive at first. Managing vendors by getting cities to define business objectives? But a lack of business objectives is one of the ways that vendors can get unruly. If you don’t know what you want out of an investment, the vendor won’t necessarily help you figure it out. They just want you buying their product, software, or services. Make an assessment of what vendors you’re currently using and then define what business problems they are (supposedly) trying to solve. This can be an eye-opening exercise to help start assessing the state of your current vendor relationships.
  2. We challenge vendors that have not been challenged in a long time. When we start working with cities, we’ll find vendor relationships that have existed for many years—sometimes even decades. In most cases, no one has challenged these vendors for a long time. What are they providing? How do their services compare with other services in the market? Has their product or service evolved with the times? Is the investment producing a direct or indirect return on investment? We find that vendors especially need to be challenged in the telecom and software space. They’ve often set up shop long ago, collect their money every year, and rarely evolve their services or become a true partner with cities.
  3. We outline clear measurements and metrics. Vendors are supposed to be doing something for you. What is it? At first, this may seem like a simplistic question. However, many cities are using hardware, software, or other technology-related services that have an unclear purpose. Servers are not used for their original intent. Software is obsolete and underutilized. Website features are overkill for a city’s needs. Each vendor should be able to demonstrate clear metrics to you about how their services are positively affecting your city.
  4. We get vendors to discuss your needs instead of giving sales presentations. Instead of vendors stopping in to upsell you more products and services, they should instead discuss your business needs as if they are a part of your team. That means objective, unbiased assessments of your situation, backed up by telling you about positive experiences they’ve had with other cities. We often assess a city’s vendor relationships by the quality of their discussions. If they can talk shop about a city’s business needs and sincerely help solve a problem with their services, then that is a positive relationship. If they dodge discussion or tough questions and instead send their sales team to pitch you presentations, then that is a sign the vendor does not have what it takes to really help you.
  5. We enforce contracts, warranties, and service agreements. One of the things that cities often thank us for is simply enforcing existing vendor agreements. In cities with tight staff, there is often little time to scour vendor agreements. Yet, that is where the gold often lies. We usually find that a city’s IT staff (or even non-IT staff) is handling issues related to telecom, software, accounting systems, or other IT-related services when the vendor should be handling those issues. Agreements often include items that vendors are obligated to handle along with areas where vendors have built in extra support hours to help you. Like magic, just reminding vendors that they should follow their agreements is one of the best parts of our job when we manage vendors.

Overall, vendor management helps maximize your investments. You’re paying all that money to utilize a vendor. Shouldn’t you be getting the most out of that investment? Since handling these investments is so important, the IT vendor management role should be a dedicated one—either with a member of your IT staff or by utilizing an IT vendor experienced in dealing with cities.

If you want to discuss vendor management in more detail, please contact us.

Thursday, January 24, 2013
Dave Mims, CEO

In a recent blog post, we told cities that they should try to get online payments set up for all city services where payment is required. However, some cities might have difficulty if they have never used online payments before. Where to start? What services will really be useful to citizens? How do you make the business case?

If you are wondering where to start with online payments, there are a few common services that are a must. Based on our common experiences with cities, we’ve prioritized the list down to five and explained why it is important to get these online payment services up and running as soon as possible.

Traffic and Parking Tickets—Not only are these types of fines common, but they also affect people who do not live in your city. We hear from public safety that out-of-towners are notorious for not paying traffic and parking fines, but cities that make it a hassle through paper-based payments place unnecessary obstacles in the way of those people to pay their fines. By making it easy to pay traffic and parking fines online, that means more revenue for the city—quicker.

Utilities—If your city offers utility services, you make it easier on citizens and businesses to pay online and set up recurring payments. Utility competition exists and there are plenty of companies who would love to make money off your citizens and businesses. If city utilities lag behind in providing online payments, it’s all the more reason for a commercial company to swoop in and provide better service. You want that revenue, right? Then make it easy for citizens to pay their utility bills.

Property Taxes—Setting up online property tax payments might even be better for cities than the convenience provided to citizens. The main reason is that it takes the burden off city staff when property tax deadlines hit. Without online property tax payments, city hall foot traffic drastically increases when citizens come in to make payments and ask questions. Your mailroom gets hit with a flood of envelopes, increasing the risk of losing and misplacing paper payments. Providing a way to pay property taxes online reduces foot traffic, decreases error, and allows city staff to focus on helping citizens who have unusual, particular problems.

Business Licenses—Cities are competing for business every day. By making a city business-friendly, you open it up to downtown development, investment, and jobs. One small but important element is to make paying for a business license as simple as possible. Business owners should have the option to pay online for both general and specialized licenses (e.g. alcohol, taxi cab, pawnbroker, etc.). It’s hard enough to start or grow a business, so you want to make paying for licenses the least of a business’s worries in your city.

Permits—Paying for permits is potentially an annoying prospect for citizens who want to generate some kind of business or community activity in your city. Perhaps they want to put up a banner, put on a garage sale, or construct a building. Paying for permits online is an easy way for citizens to comply with the law in an effortless fashion. Otherwise, you’ll be hearing complaints at city council meetings or over the phone about difficulties in paying for and acquiring permits. An online option to pay for permits signals that you’re a citizen-friendly city that encourages community activity and participation.

By providing online payments for these basic services, you make it easy to collect revenue with as little city staff overhead as possible. Some people will still like to pay by mail, phone, or in person, but since more and more people are becoming used to paying online you will do your citizens a great service by providing this option. When it comes to collecting revenue, why not make it as quick and easy as possible?

If you’d like to talk about online payments in more detail, contact us.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Clint Nelms, COO

With so many email accounts getting hacked from the highest levels of government to the smallest cities, it might seem easier to throw up your hands and just assume that all email is vulnerable. Looking at the worst-case email hacking scenarios, often conducted by the world’s best cybercriminals, you might think, “How will I prevent something like that from happening to my small city?”

However, those worst-case scenarios are rare. More commonly, mediocre to below-average hackers from all over the world are always trying to hack your email. That is why you cannot give up.

Your email contains some of your most sensitive city information. Private correspondence about personnel, money, and legal matters needs to be kept private (or accessible only through open records laws). But email also seems like the loosest, least secure information in a city. (Usually) everyone has email, whether it’s on laptops, mobile devices, or desktops at home. That opens up many opportunities for risk.

With a set of simple best practices, you can secure your email and even increase the security depending on message sensitivity. Primarily, it helps to focus on three basic areas to make sure your email is secure.

  1. Encryption While encryption is very complex, what you need to focus on is email encryption in transit – meaning that the email you send from your desktop or laptop (for example, from Microsoft Outlook) to your server is encrypted. Microsoft, as just one example, automatically encrypts your email when you use their Office 365 cloud services. This level of encryption ensures that most common hackers or eavesdroppers cannot see your message.

    Unfortunately, many cities use Post Office Protocol (POP) versions of email, which is not encrypted. While that kind of email might be sufficient for personal use, it’s not a high enough standard for cities. If you are currently using POP mail, then you need to consider upgrading in order to ensure appropriate email encryption for your city.

  2. Antispam There are still too many stories of email hacking occurring when people are tricked by spam and phishing attacks. When email security is rigorously set up, you develop a proactively blocked and safe sender email list over time. We recommend that you apply antispam harshly. Software is available where you can look at your spam on a separate server and see if valid emails are getting caught in the spam filter. Then, you decide to let them through – instead of having to delete spam after it already gets to your inbox.

    We advocate the goal (following in the steps of Google and Microsoft) of traditional spam (such as Viagra emails or Nigerian money scams) never even reaching your spam folder. Ultimately, your spam folder should only contain things like unwanted newsletters, mass emails from businesses, and other unnecessary messages – with maybe only occasionally some traditional spam getting through. If your spam folder still looks dangerous and unmanageable, or if you still get spam in your inbox, your email security is failing you.

  3. Antivirus You are probably sick of hearing about needing antivirus as part of your email security, but what you might not have heard of is “multi-engine scanning.” If you’re using a simple antivirus solution (either free or low cost), it’s probably only single-engine scanning. That means the software is not only going to take a long time to scan for viruses, but it’s also only relying on one antivirus company’s database of viruses.

    Cities need an enterprise antivirus solution because the risks are too large if a virus hits. That means scanning faster and more thoroughly using different antivirus engines. For example, Microsoft Forefront uses a proprietary engine along with Authentium, Kaspersky, Norman, and VirusBuster. Along with the constant monitoring, proactive prevention, and better virus alerts, your email security system will not even let email messages through that have viruses.

    Too many email programs are still so loosely secured that viruses get through and people click on them. With city government, you cannot take that risk. A good enterprise antivirus program easily integrates with your email, and it stops virus-ridden emails at the server level so that they never even get to the user.

Correctly set up, your email security can be powerful and ward off most hacking attempts. If you’d like to discuss email security in more detail, please contact us.

Friday, January 18, 2013
Nathan Eisner, Network Manager

One of the best parts of our job is to help cities save money. One element of technology that always seems to be a great place to start is the city’s phone system. Cities are usually paying too much for their phones, clinging onto long-term contracts where telecom vendors are squeezing every last drop out of a city’s budget.

Since phone systems are quite complicated, especially with the advent of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), it might be helpful to look at VoIP more closely in terms of financial savings. It’s easy to misunderstand what VoIP is. Traditionally, cities often think of everything phone-related as “the phone system,” but there are many parts and pieces where you need to examine where you might be losing money to traditional telecom vendors.

Considering VoIP is an excellent way to challenge your existing phone system contracts and see if you can find some long-term cost savings.

  1. Your phone equipment is separate from a phone line. Many people still conflate phone lines with the actual phone itself. Phones are equipment—the hardware that allows you to communicate. The phone line is what’s used to transmit the voice communication to the phone. When you think about phone equipment in the same bucket as phone lines, it’s easy for phone vendors to sell you fancy equipment with lots of buttons and features. That’s meant to distract you from paying attention to the most important piece – the phone LINE. Let’s set the phone equipment aside for now. That’s easily purchased or leased. Instead, you need to pay attention to your phone line.
  2. VoIP saves you money by using your existing Internet connection as a phone line, instead of paying for a dedicated traditional phone line. Much of the cost related to a telecom contract is in paying for the dedicated phone lines owned by telecom companies (such as AT&T). However, most cities have gotten access to high-speed Internet bandwidth. VoIP uses your existing high-speed Internet connection as the phone line. So, since you’re already paying for that Internet bandwidth, the cost of your phone services can be reduced because you are not paying for a dedicated phone line anymore.
  3. You won’t notice a difference switching to VoIP since it works the same as a regular phone line. While the underlying technology might be different from a traditional phone line, you will not notice a difference in your voice communication. It will be the same quality, and you won’t have to do anything differently to communicate. You’ll still use a normal phone device (by purchasing or leasing phone equipment with all of the business features you’ll need) and the sound has achieved comparable quality compared with traditional phone lines. As long as you have good Internet bandwidth, you will notice no dip in voice quality.
  4. VoIP makes it easy to add or delete users, anywhere, anytime. Because VoIP is Internet-based and much easier to manage than traditional phone lines and hardware, you can easily add or delete people depending on when staff leaves or joins the city. With most traditional phone systems, it’s a hassle to add or delete users and there are often fees involved. For example, it’s often expensive to add traditional phone lines for people who work out of the office (either in a remote location or from home). With VoIP, it’s just a matter of adding another user. The technology makes managing your phone users very simple and scalable.
  5. You can keep your phone numbers. You can still use the same phone numbers you already have because of Local Number Portability. That means that switching over to VoIP will be a seamless process for your staff and citizens. People won’t notice any change in phone numbers or how they contact the city. From the outside, they won’t even know you switched to VoIP.
  6. Not only will you still have the same phone features you’re used to, but they will often be cheaper or included for free. Traditional phone vendors make extra money when you want extra features, but many VoIP vendors throw in extension dialing, call transfer/forwarding, and basic conference call functions (like 3-way calling) for free. Plus, you get features that traditional phone lines cannot provide such as voice mail going straight to your email inbox as an audio file. That means people can check voicemail from anywhere, as long as they have access to their email.
  7. You will be surprised when you perform an audit of your phone lines and Internet connection. An audit often shows you ways that VoIP will save you money and leverage new features without upgrades or changes. The audit will also point out phone numbers that should still remain on a traditional (analog) phone line such as fax, alarm, or public safety numbers.

As you can see, switching to VoIP not only replicates the phone system you’re already used to, but you have the potential to add new features, scale up and down easily, and—most importantly—save thousands of dollars per year. Phone systems have advanced greatly over the past 10 years. At this point, those advances mean savings to your city.

If you’d like to talk about switching to VoIP or assessing your telecom budget, please contact us.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Clint Nelms, COO

We’ve talked about disaster recovery in the past, but one interesting aspect to note is that many cities often think about disaster in a mundane way—losing a document, a server crashing, or getting a virus. But true disaster recovery means Hurricane Sandy-level disaster. It means asking, “Who is still alive?” And depending on your answer, asking “How will I run the city at a time when citizens need us most?”

There are some important questions you must answer to build a true disaster recovery plan that go beyond merely wondering what happens if you lose a Microsoft Word file. These are questions that transcend but also include technology, since the strength of your technology will help strengthen your overall disaster recovery plan.

  1. If a disaster happens, how would you run your city? Assume the worst has happened, and then imagine that scenario. Where will you meet? What will you need to do? These are business processes you must define to help figure out how the city will run when City Hall might be destroyed or key staff are unable to perform their jobs. Many cities designate one or more emergency sites, define roles and multiple people who may fill them, and outline what needs to happen immediately after the disaster, in the first few days after the disaster, and then week by week until the city is fully operational again.
  2. How is your hardware, equipment, and data backed up? The best disaster recovery planning has your technology up and running within 24-48 hours. You should understand your network thoroughly, how it will be replaced if it’s destroyed, and how your data will be restored. Many solutions exist in which brand new servers can be shipped within a few days, with nearly all of your data intact. Having access to your information is important if you are going to start helping citizens as soon as possible after the disaster.
  3. What can you still do while power and Internet is out? Even though you may have an excellent data backup and disaster recovery plan, it’s useless if power and Internet is out. If you know that your city will absolutely need to be up and running—with power—then think about generators or hiring a company to help provide power, phone service, wireless Internet, and hardware immediately. If you are able to still effectively run city operations without power or Internet for a while, then draw on the past. How has your city previously handled disasters? How have other similar or nearby cities successfully handled disasters? Model your plan based on what you or other similar cities have done when they lacked power for days or weeks.
  4. What services and data will you need immediately, and what can wait? Some data is more important than other data, and thinking about this allows you to prioritize how you’ll recover from your disaster. For example, 911 services might need a high-end disaster recovery plan while your parks and recreation data might be all right if it is down for a few weeks. Discuss your priorities with key city staff based upon your disaster scenarios. Then plan appropriate disaster recovery solutions for each area where you will need the data up and running sooner or later.
  5. What do your vendors provide concerning disaster recovery in their support agreements? Many times, cities only realize what vendors can and can’t do in a disaster until it’s too late. In your disaster recovery planning, make sure you assess your vendor support agreements, consolidate and summarize what vendors provide in case of disaster, and look for gaps. If a key piece of disaster recovery is missing from a specific system or piece of software, then you might want to talk to the vendor about this issue. If they cannot provide adequate disaster recovery, then you might want to look at other vendors. If they do provide great disaster recovery as part of their support, then note that in your plan.

Overall, you want to plan. Even if the plan is imperfect, it at least gets the process started. The questions that are raised are very important, since the answers may one day save lives and help citizens in case the worst happens. By building your plan, assessing your technology and data backup, and prioritizing your recovery plan, you are on the right track toward creating a useful contingency plan that can immediately go into action when needed.

If you’d like to discuss disaster recovery in more detail, please contact us.

Thursday, January 10, 2013
John Miller, Network Infrastructure Manager

When you collaborate with multiple people on a document, do you feel like you waste too much time? You work hard creating the document and then share it with people via email. Then...the fun begins.

  • Who’s editing it right now?
  • What’s the latest version?
  • Where’s the document? I can’t find it in my email.
  • Oh no, I’ve got to bug them again about the deadline.
  • Did the city manager review it yet? I’m not sure.

That pile of confusion increases the more people are involved. That is why document management through email is often disastrous. You always start out trying to collaborate with good intentions, but chaos eventually prevails. True, you’ll get the document completed, but there is so much wasted time (and money) and too much frustration.

It’s not your fault. Any complex situation is hard to manage once you start to involve multiple people and multiple documents. A good document management solution helps you turn that natural chaos into order.

And by saving time, you are saving money—those unproductive hours that go down the drain when you’re wasting time chasing down documents. Here’s how document management can help your collaboration efforts.

  1. Centralized storage and distribution of documents. Instead of documents residing on everyone’s computers or in email, you create a document and place it into a central repository where all authorized people can view it. You can still create a document in whatever software you prefer (e.g. Microsoft Word) on your desktop or laptop. When it comes time to share it, you upload it into a library of files where it’s easy for others to access. Document management should also help you with tagging the files appropriately so that they are easily searchable.
  2. Centralized communication with people about documents. While you may be used to email, communicating within the document management system centralizes your communications around a specific document. You can still get email notifications, but it’s important that you can easily read through specific discussions about a particular document within the document management system without having to search through your email.
  3. Authorized access for both internal and external teams. Internally, you obviously don’t want every person at your city to be able to access a document. At the same time, you may want an outside vendor or contractor to have access to a particular document. A document management solution should allow you to precisely set permissions so that only people authorized to view and edit the document have access. That way, it’s easy to collaborate with a vendor or contractor without having your IT team create a separate username or login to your system.
  4. Friendly notifications about documents. Depending on how often you want to be notified, document management systems can let you know about updates to documents in real-time or just summarize activity daily or weekly. If you’re working closely on a document, it may help to be notified about changes as they occur. If you’re the city manager or a department head who just wants to stay notified about ongoing progress without cluttering up your email, a daily or weekly summary of activity may work fine. This feature helps prevent you from being cc’d on endless amounts of emails about document edits that you don’t need to respond to.
  5. Structured workflow. When you work on documents manually, there is a higher likelihood of error. You might miss a key element of the document, name it incorrectly, or forget to include a reviewer. By building in a structured workflow into your document management system, you can make sure that certain steps are always followed. That may include ensuring that the document is reviewed by specific people, contains specific pieces of content, and gets official approval before it’s published or delivered. This ensures that a document always goes out with the highest quality standards.
  6. Document versioning. This is probably one of the favorite aspects of a document management system for many people. With document versioning, a document can only be checked out to one person at a time. This prevents the problem of two or more people editing a document at the same time. Two people accidentally editing the same document is probably one of the biggest time wasters in an organization. Plus, with document versioning, you can go back to previous versions of a document in case you need to see what it looked like earlier or even revert to a previous version.

As you can see, a document management system introduces several features that make collaboration a great deal easier versus manually collaborating through email. You will save time, save money, and reduce frustration. Plus, you’ll be able to work much better with teams both internally and externally. It’s a win-win-win for all!

If you’d like to discuss document management collaboration in more detail, please contact us.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Dave Mims, CEO

As I’ve met with hundreds of cities over the past few years, I’ve been stunned that so many have paid on average about $15,000 to $20,000 for a website (sometimes way more, and sometimes a little less). True, every city situation is different and some larger cities may need enhanced capabilities that require complex website design and development, but for most small to medium-sized cities it’s safe to say that $15,000 is just too much.

Advances in technology and Internet functionality have lowered the costs of what used to make websites so expensive. Let’s go through each part and piece of a website and see if you’re paying too much. By examining each piece of your website, you might find some opportunities to save significant money.

  • Design and Development For very large cities with complicated services and a need to present a high-end public face in front of millions of people, a significant investment in design might be appropriate. But for most small cities, you do not need a high-end custom designed website. Doing that opens up two risks. First, you might be paying way too much, even if the website looks great. Second, if you’re having someone custom design your website because they are the lowest price, you often get what you pay for. We’ve seen many cases where someone with limited skills cobbles together something that ends up embarrassing the city. Instead, there are many customizable and elegant design templates that look great, fit city needs, and—best of all—cost very little.
  • Hosting Unless your website has very high demands (like thousands of people per day accessing services) or uses data intensively, your hosting options should run in the hundreds of dollars per month. Hosting fees have come down significantly, and there are many options such as shared hosting (where you share a server with other websites) or the cloud (where world-class vendors will host your website at a low cost) that will bring your costs down. If you’re still maintaining a dedicated website server (or servers) in-house or paying thousands of dollars for data center website hosting, you may want to look at other hosting options.
  • Putting Content Onto the Website We cannot emphasize this enough—you should be able to put content onto your own website. For no extra fees. The days of having a webmaster or vendor putting content onto your website are long over. Most modern websites have easy-to-use ways to add, delete, and edit content. If you still have someone doing this for you, or it’s extremely difficult to put content onto your website, then you need to look at some different options.
  • Licenses and Upgrades Many vendors want you to believe their website and related services are very special—so special that you need to pay a lot of money for licenses and upgrades. That’s where most website vendors will really eat into your budget. Newer websites are based on a subscription model. After the setup, you should be able to turn on the website and pay a low monthly fee. If you’re paying a large upfront fee and steep annual licensing costs, there are more affordable options you need to look at.
  • Bells and Whistles So your website has the capability to share news out to hundreds of social media platforms, magnificent forum features that can handle dozens of discussion groups, and a multimedia section where you can upload videos, podcasts, and photo albums. But...do you really need all of these features? Usually, cities have been sold expensive websites where a lot of features sounded good at the time but later did not meet business needs. If you don’t need it, why pay for it? There are many website options that stick to basics and can be customized or scaled up to meet exactly the needs of your city.

A small- to medium-sized city just doesn’t need excessive website design and development, hosting, or features. You just need a website for a low cost that does what you need. You should only be paying hundreds or low thousands per month. Anything significantly more, and you’re most likely losing money.

If you want to talk about your website needs, please contact us.

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