Faced with unrelenting budget cuts, government leaders must think outside the box to fund IT projects — and in the case of Johnson County, Kan., and the state of Georgia, they're thinking outside their borders.
Some local jurisdictions lack IT staff, so Johnson County provides technology and help desk services to those cities and fire departments. In turn, a few cities within Johnson County share their fiber, allowing the county to connect buildings to the cities' high-speed networks.
"We've saved a ton of money," says Jack Clegg, Johnson County's director of IT services. "It's important for every government agency to look at the potential for partnerships. It's just common sense."
In Georgia, the state's Department of Labor has teamed with North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee to build and jointly operate a new unemployment insurance system that will allow each state to replace its own aging system.
City, county and state IT departments have boosted collaboration on technology projects over the past few years. They pool funds to buy applications and equipment, share resources, and in some cases, outsource their IT needs to neighboring jurisdictions.
Shawn McCarthy, research director of IDC Government Insights, says the availability of high-speed bandwidth means it doesn't matter where computing systems are located. Taking a regional approach to IT yields cost savings and gives communities access to technology that they might not otherwise be able to afford, which in turn enables them to more efficiently provide services to their residents.
"It's about looking for opportunities to work together on technology, so none of us have to reinvent the wheel," says Calvin Rhodes, CIO and executive director of the Georgia Technology Authority (GTA).
Many states are saddled with 20- to 30-year-old unemployment insurance systems during a time when they are stretched thin processing a record number of claims. Because funds are limited and systems are expensive, the U.S. Department of Labor has encouraged states to band together to build new systems, says Brenda Brown, Georgia's assistant commissioner for unemployment insurance.
The Department of Labor is funding the work of three unemployment insurance system collaborative initiatives: Georgia, Tennessee and the two Carolinas are receiving $50 million; Arizona, Colorado, North Dakota and Wyoming are receiving $72 million; and Maryland, West Virginia and Vermont get $6 million.
75% of state CIOs collaborate with cities and counties within their states
82% collaborate with other state CIOs
SOURCE: A New C4 Agenda: Perspectives and Trends from State Government IT Leaders (NASCIO, October 2011
Last fall, Georgia and its partners in the Southeast Consortium completed a 16-month feasibility study and determined that the collaborative effort can work. "It will be a core system that will be tailored to ensure it's flexible enough to accommodate each state's individual needs," Brown says.
The Southeast Consortium will release a request for proposal early this year, pick a vendor by summer and launch a new system about three years after that, Brown says. With the new application, Georgia aims to improve processes and provide more self-service features for users, such as the ability to generate reports more quickly and easily.
A new system will help fulfill federal reporting requirements and media requests for unemployment statistics, notes Deborah Belcher, the CIO of the Georgia Department of Labor. "When the staff needs a report, instead of making a request to the IT department, they can query and generate it themselves," she says.
Similarly, the states of Colorado, Montana, Oregon and Utah have joined forces to share geographic information system (GIS) storage over the cloud. The idea is that by combining their buying power, they can get a better contract than by doing it alone, says Jon Gottsegen, enterprise GIS services manager and state GIS coordinator for Colorado. The group released an RFP in December.
The IT leadership among the four western states see the GIS project as a test case for cloud usage and future state collaborations. "The driving forces are two things: How can states leverage the cloud, and how can states on a broader level really work together and realize efficiencies?" Gottsegen says.
States are not just seeking to share services across the border, but they are looking within their own borders and collaborating with cities and counties. For example, the GTA has long provided network and telecom services to cities and counties in the state, Rhodes says.
GTA historically has managed its telecommunications services in-house, but in 2009, it outsourced the services to AT&T, which now runs and manages the state's phone and network services. About 1,400 government entities throughout the state purchase high-speed network connections and phone services through Georgia's AT&T contract.
"A lot of smaller and medium-sized municipalities tend to leverage our contract because it gives them the best prices," Rhodes says. "But to be honest, it's mutually beneficial. Our contract is based on volume, so the more municipalities sign up, the lower the pricing is for everyone."
The key to cross-boundary collaborations is simply to forge relationships with neighboring CIOs, says Johnson County's Clegg. When he joined the county in 1998, Clegg launched a technology consortium open to any of the cities and government entities in the county to discuss IT issues.
"You have to bring people to the table to make things happen. You have to have an open dialogue and see what opportunities arise," Clegg recommends.
In 2003, Johnson County began managing the IT operations for Consolidated Fire District No. 2. More recently, Johnson County took over the IT needs of the city of Mission, Kan., and is in talks with two other cities to potentially handle their IT functions. The county charges jurisdictions enough to cover its costs, Clegg says.
"They're not large operations. It's like inheriting another department," he says.
The spirit of cooperation cuts both ways. The cities of Olathe, Overland Park and Lenexa, Kan., have shared their fiber with the county, allowing the county to connect about 20 remote county buildings to their high-speed networks. The county also links its primary data center and its new 911 Emergency Communications Center using the fiber, which improves disaster recovery.
The county alone has saved about $2 million to $3 million because it has eliminated the need for expensive leased lines into those county buildings, says Clegg, who recently took early retirement and will leave Johnson County in late January.
When multiple jurisdictions share services, their partnership can yield more opportunities for mutual projects and cost savings over time. That's exactly what has happened with Washtenaw County, Mich., and the city of Ann Arbor, which have shared a data center the past three years.
In 2009, Washtenaw County needed to upgrade its aging data center. When Ann Arbor IT Director Dan Rainey heard about the county's need, he suggested an alternative: Collocate in the city's data center. The county did and, in doing so, saved $1.2 million in capital costs. Consolidating two data centers down to one also reduced power and cooling consumption by about 40 percent.
Today, the two jurisdictions are further collaborating on IT infrastructure and applications, says Washtenaw County Interim IT Manager Andy Brush. While each still maintains separate IT staffs, they share common infrastructure and applications as much as possible, including web servers, a storage area network, an electronic content management system and GIS, Brush says.
"It's the right thing to do," says Brush, whose department pays the city rent to use its data center. "For us to have duplicate resources in physical and software infrastructure did not make sense."
Ann Arbor benefits from the arrangement because its IT department didn't have to purchase its own SAN or ECM system, instead paying a share of the county's equipment and software costs, Rainey says.
Washtenaw County shares its IT resources with other cities that need them and manages IT operations for the city of
Ypsilanti, Mich., the Chelsea Police Department and the Dexter Fire Department. In the meantime, Washtenaw and Ann Arbor regularly look for new opportunities to collaborate and recently purchased IP surveillance cameras together, Brush says.
"When one of us needs a major upgrade, we look across the street and ask, 'What are you guys planning?' and then we see if the timing matches," Brush says.
Follow these tips for collaborating across borders:
- Collaboration means building consensus. When you're part of a consortium, it can't be 100 percent your way. It has to be a give and take. Stay open-minded, be creative and find common ground, advises Brenda Brown of the Georgia Department of Labor.
- Get it in writing. Before you start working together, sign an interagency agreement between jurisdictions. It's important to nail down the details on pricing and scope of work, says Andy Brush of Washtenaw County, Mich.
- Negotiate with vendors so you can share expensive business applications. It doesn't make sense for cities and counties in the same vicinity to purchase the same high-end business applications. Consider sharing the costs: One jurisdiction buys the server software and other jurisdictions buy licenses to use the software, Brush recommends.