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CitySmart Blog

Friday, February 12, 2010
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
With many cities in a budget crunch curiosity about open source software is starting to peak. We often get asked by our customers whether they should consider an open source project and we always tell them the same thing: Do an assessment. Whether its standard software or open source whichever solution you choose needs to meet particular needs and an assessment will help you identify those needs. In some cases open source can work great, especially if it’s for a smaller job function. But more important applications require an in-depth analysis and open source applications still have difficulty meeting the rigorous support needs that many cities have. At the end of the day, it comes down to not just looking at pure cost, but rather: what is the best choice to meet our needs? If that means an open source software product then great just don’t skimp on the analysis because of the nice free price tag. As my grandpa always says, there’s no such thing as a free puppy.
Friday, February 5, 2010
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience
The Editor of Governing, Alan Ehrenhalt, is leaving the publication after 22 years and his final column is an elegant look at the locus of innovation at the state and local government level. Traditionally, he argues, innovation has taken place at the state level, where governors have made sweeping policy changes that lead to true change in their state. However, with many states currently facing massive budget shortfalls and crippling pension costs, the locus of innovation has shifted to city government, where many are using their budget problems as a reason for change instead of a detriment to it.
Ehrenhalt doesn’t delve too deeply into how the cities are doing this but I think it’s largely due to many of them embracing technology as a way out of the rabbit hole. Many are implementing open data initiatives, IT consolidation plans, and plans for crowdsourcing budgets. Sure, many cities are still facing budget problems, but they seem more willing to spend the money to overhaul their infrastructure than the states are. Like all things, the center of innovation will shift back and forth between state and local government over the next decade (and Ehrenhalt provides plenty of examples), but here at Sophicity we’re going to do what we can to make sure that the cities continue to innovate, cut costs, and modernize their operations. At any rate, the column is a great look into what drives innovation at the non-federal government level from a man who’s been keeping his astute eyes on it for some time.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
We’ve discussed a number of cities and states that are moving to open data initiatives, so this is nothing new, but now a number of cities in Colorado are jumping on board. What’s interesting here however, is that instead of an individual entity doing it, like a city or state, here we have a co-op of cities all working together to share data. Seeing as cities tend to be protective of their data, this is an interesting move and one that I hope we see more of. The benefits here are great, from more accurate GIS to integrated crime fighting databases, this should help cities look at themselves less as islands and more as part of a community at large, working for the better of the citizens. Let us know if your city is looking into an open data initiative, we’re all ways curious to see how they pan out.
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Allen Koronkowski, Practice Manager: Projects
I’ve mentioned more than few times how important planning is to making sure an IT project stays on track. Need further proof, take a look at this article from Stateline that states that a staggering 85% of government IT projects come in over budget, over time or both. We’ve gone over a few horror stories here in the past, so I won’t dig them up, but some of the numbers quoted in the article are mind-blowing. California’s state court system project, for instance, went from $240 million to over $1billion, due in large part to mismanagement. If your city is about to implement a big budget IT project (whatever big means for your government), careful planning, management and vendor selection are incredibly important to making sure that you’re in that upper 15% of success stories. Whether you tap internal knowledge, outside help, or both, take the time to lay out a plan and a budget and do whatever it takes to stick to it.
Friday, January 29, 2010
Dave Mims, President
Atlantic City, NJ recently had an audit done which uncovered that the city was being charge far too much by its completely outsourced IT vendor. This is further proof that for larger cities, a hybrid approach may be the best way of both keeping costs low and ensuring good service. With internal employees keeping in lockstep with your vendor, both parties can work to utilize their strengths to the table – internal employees will always have more institutional knowledge and vendors can bring a lot of technical resources. Of course, you’ll also need to find a vendor that is willing to work with you on such a model, which is why we always suggest vetting any vendor thoroughly (including us!) before singing on. Hybrid models work because they create a good system of check and balances that help city and vendor alike.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Allen Koronkowski, Practice Manager: Projects
Portland recently switched to a new accounting system and now there are reports that things are going a bit rough. This in and of itself isn’t much of a big surprise as any project this large is bound to have a few hiccups. More interesting is a look at the reasons. While some of the faults in the system could be attributed to bugs and errors, many of the problems are caused by employee error, or more specifically, a lack of adequate training. This is a good lesson to show that such huge projects need to be 360 degree affairs, from the technology implementation to the end user training. Even the best coded system is worthless if your staff can’t use it. If you’re planning a huge new technology overhaul, be sure to plan for plenty of end user training and communication. It can make a world of difference.
Monday, January 25, 2010
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience
Over at GovFresh they’re running a piece on Code for America, which is an organization that is looking to crowdsource the development of Gov 2.0 apps for five lucky cities in 2010. Developers will work with the cities to implement some brand new applications to help cities communicate with their citizens in whole new ways. It’s really great to see so many of these sorts of contests going on, especially in the local government sector where modern web apps can really make a difference. There’s an application process for your city if you wish to join the contest and get a few new apps to spruce up your website.
Friday, January 22, 2010
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
One trend that we’re starting to see is a number of States experimenting with providing data center and cloud-computing services to the local governments within their borders. The thought is that the State will be able to provide more updated technologies that cities can typically afford, at a price that will be hard to argue with. Instead of each city having its own massive IT infrastructure, they could simply purchase services from their State, sort of like a utility. It will be interesting to see how these types of programs pan out, especially when it comes to getting the buy-in of the various decision makers and department heads at each city. But it has the potential of truly changing the way that local governments do their IT. As a vendor, you might think we’d be worried about this sort of thing, but we think it could have great benefit. Even with State outsourced services cities will still need IT professionals for planning, implementation, and maintenance. As the various cloud technologies come to fruition, we’ll be watching this trend to see how it develops.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Allen Koronkowski, Practice Manager: Projects
Over the last year, I’ve been closely following how city governments are using Twitter. It’s a powerful tool but many of the rules of how to use it are still being written. One area that some cities are struggling with is transparency and open records. Sure you might think “But Twitter is open to everyone anyway” but the problem is a bit more complex than that. GovTech points us to an interview they did with a few local government reps who have been looking into ways to catalog and archive twitter and social media posts so that cities can readily provide the communications if requested. If your city is actively using twitter (which I’m sure many are), this article might give you a few good tips on how to manage your twitter feed storage.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Allen Koronkowski, Practice Manager: Projects
Is technology a part of your city’s long term vision? If not, it should be. While most cities have long term plans for economic development or infrastructure improvement, the prevailing thinking is that IT planning only covers short-term immediate needs that don’t go beyond the next budget cycle. However, such planning is reactionary and misses the opportunity of using IT to strengthen the city’s overall vision and act as a catalyst for quickly bringing important city projects to completion. By discussing your future IT needs within the context of the larger vision of the city, projects involving a technology-related investment become much more compelling to city council and other decision makers who might otherwise get bogged down by only technical aspects. Here are a few tips for making IT planning an integral part of your overall vision for the city.

Create a Long Term Technology Vision

Before you can understand how IT fits into the city’s overall plan, you’ll need to explore how technology may help enable the city’s vision. Stay away from specifics like “buy a new accounting system” and focus on more general themes that enable the city’s larger goals. For instance, if the city’s economic development plan is to bring new business to the downtown area, the technology component might be “To implement technologies and tools that help attract new business to the city.” If the city’s vision is to reduce operating costs, the technology vision might be “To use IT to improve efficiency across each department.” The goal is to strengthen and enable the city’s overall vision by harnessing IT across the entire city instead of budgeting for IT in isolation or to benefit single departments.

Build a Project List

Once you’ve solidified how IT will enable your city’s vision, start tackling exactly how it’s going to come to fruition. Most city visions are accomplished by completing a number of small, highly specific projects. To use our examples from above, technology projects to attract new businesses might include a new website that makes the city look more attractive to outsiders, improving broadband internet connectivity in the downtown area, and providing access to web-based advertising, eCommerce, and online permitting services. Projects to help reduce operating costs might include using new products and services that reduce paper-based, manual, or redundant processes, updating IT hardware to more energy efficient and modern standards, or replacing expensive software licenses with more cost-effective alternatives. Work closely with your IT staff or vendor to perform an assessment for each affected department to determine the scope and priority of the project list, always with the overall vision in mind.

Perform Yearly Evaluations

Experience dictates that over the course of carrying out the city’s vision, many things can and will change. Perhaps implementation takes longer than expected or there is an economic downturn and the city has less money with which to budget. Whatever the case may be, sit down with city decision makers on a yearly basis (or more often if warranted) and provide an evaluation of the plan. Are projects on schedule? Does the city have appropriate budget dollars allocated? Have priorities shifted or changed? When initially designing project plans, try to add flexibility so that changing course is quick and painless. Provide clear course correction points at which the city could modify or stop the plan without much impact to earlier projects. The IT plan for attracting new businesses might include provisions for decreasing the scope of online services if demand is low, or the cost reduction plan might indicate provisions for implementing the cheapest projects first because of budget limitations. With that said, try not to make the plan so flexible that it constantly changes and creates chaos for your implementation staff. Like all things, you’ll need to create a balance between a concrete plan and a flexible one.


As your city looks forward to the future, make it a high priority to include technology planning as a key component of the city’s future goals. Sticking to a consistent vision for technology not only makes planning individual projects easier but it also provides a way to discuss these changes with a citizenry that is becoming more increasingly aware and interested in how their government is using technology to make it more available and transparent. Such plans are also a great way to help city council truly grasp how technology goes beyond short-term reactive budgets and instead enables long-term growth and stability at the city. That’s a vision everyone can get behind.

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