When the IT departments of Bedford County and the town of Bedford, Va., successfully collaborated on a recent wireless project, it was a positive step in a complicated relationship between the two communities.
“We used to joke about being East and West Berlin,” says Corey Crompton, the town’s CIO. “It wasn’t adversarial — we were just artificially isolated.”
In late 2012, a wireless access problem in patrol cars broke the ice. The county sheriff’s department suffered from frequent dropped connections, while the Bedford Police Department needed a new virtual private network (VPN) to access criminal databases and the records management system at their joint 911 communications center.
Together, the two jurisdictions purchased new software that resolved both problems, which has fostered further joint IT ventures. “It was about public safety. It was important, so everyone played together as a team,” Crompton says.
States and local governments continue to find new ways of pooling IT resources to cost-effectively provide services. In fact, three-quarters of CIOs name cross-jurisdictional collaboration among their strategic goals, according to a 2013 study by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers. Data center hosting and network services are the most commonly shared services, followed by security, email, geographic information systems (GIS) and telephony.
“City, county and state governments are going for the money savings on commodities, but in some cases, the goal may be to better provide a coordinated response to save lives or mitigate a disaster,” says Chris Dixon, senior manager for state and local industry analysis at Deltek.
Bedford County IT manager Eric Rice knew he had a problem shortly after the sheriff’s department upgraded from modems to mobile broadband cards in the county’s 43 patrol vehicles.
Deputies frequently lost their cellular connections in the vast and mountainous county, which was problematic when they pulled cars over and ran their license plates. Often, deputies didn’t know they were disconnected, so they’d have to spend several minutes to log in again.
“Seconds count when you pull people over and you want to make sure they’re not dangerous,” Rice says.
Meanwhile, the town’s police department needed to upgrade its VPN to comply with the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services security requirements. Crompton discovered a solution in NetMotion Wireless’ Mobile XE software and suggested to the county IT department that they work together.
The two IT departments had never collaborated before. Each IT department pitched the idea to their respective public-safety officials. Both sides responded positively, and from there, the county and town administrators approved the project.
“When law enforcement became a united front, that broke down the barriers,” Crompton says.
The NetMotion software not only provides stronger encryption, which the town needs, but also eliminated the dropped connections plaguing the county, says Crompton, who installed the software at the 911 center in early 2013.
The project was a win-win for both communities. The town of 7,000 residents gained access to technology that it otherwise could not afford. Bedford County, which has deeper coffers, paid for 90 percent of the software.
The county, on the other hand, got the solution it needed without having to install or manage it. “It took a lot of pressure off of us since we have so much on our plate,” says Rice, whose four-person IT staff manages 300 computers, dozens of applications and the IT needs of a dozen outlying buildings, including the 911 center.
The IT departments have since partnered on a new GIS system and crime-mapping tool to help law enforcement analyze crime data and spot trends. Overall, the collaborations benefit both sides, Rice explains. “We help them, and they help us,” he says.
In 2006, the Nebraska state legislature tasked state CIO Brenda Decker and the University of Nebraska with building a statewide IP network, but didn’t fund the project. Undaunted, they built Network Nebraska, an initiative that provides low-cost, high-speed Internet and data transport to more than 270 K–12 school districts, educational service units (ESUs) and colleges.
It’s a true collaborative effort that’s completely funded by its users, says Tom Rolfes, Network Nebraska’s project lead. “We had to come together as a project team and make it up as to how the network was to be constructed and funded,” he says.
In 2007, Decker’s office received a three-year loan of about $270,000 from the state to cover hardware and construction costs. The group built the network in phases. That year, 94 school districts, ESUs and colleges from the northeast portion of the state created a consortium to share resources (such as bandwidth, content filtering tools and tech support), so they became the first implementation group. During the next four years, organizers built the rest of the network by connecting four more regional consortiums to the network, Rolfes says.
Today, the network is financially self-sufficient. Through E-Rate funds and the fees it charges educational institutions, the state CIO’s office repaid its loan in 2010. Membership has nearly tripled, and as a result of the aggregated demand, Network Nebraska has dramatically reduced the cost of Internet bandwidth.
“Without the trust and collaboration between the university and the state, and all the participants, we wouldn’t be where we are,” Rolfes says.
While some communities pool resources to purchase applications and equipment, others outsource their IT needs to larger government entities in their region.
The IT department at the borough of State College, Pa., recently became a managed-service provider that offers hardware, software and network support services to neighboring jurisdictions and government entities.
State College previously provided services to the Regional Technology Coalition, which includes the townships of College, Patton and Ferguson; the Centre Region Council of Governments; and the Centre Area Transportation Authority. Launched in 2003, the coalition’s goal was to combine resources and lower costs for everyone.
Because the borough was the only member with a fully staffed IT department, the other townships and entities paid for two full-time staffers to manage their IT needs. But as these needs grew, the borough lost money on the endeavor. When Angel Hernandez arrived as State College’s new chief technology officer in 2011, a third-party assessment of the coalition found that the borough was subsidizing the other members by about $25 an hour.
Hernandez disbanded the coalition, but didn’t abandon its other members. In January, his eight-person IT department became a managed-service provider, offering tiered pricing for different levels of service. All original members except the township of Ferguson have signed up with three-year agreements. They’re paying higher rates, but to ease the transition, the borough is increasing the costs incrementally.
The new structure gives Hernandez more flexibility and autonomy to make purchasing decisions and reduce costs. Instead of having to wait for partners to approve projects as part of their budget cycles, he can make quicker decisions.
“The cost model is transparent, allows for tailored support and makes us a more well-rounded IT service provider,” he says.