What challenges do towns, cities and counties – large and small – face in 2009? I’m at the fall conference of Washington State City/County IT managers (ACCIS) this week. We’ve had a number of discussions about problems and solutions. But it is also apparent that many apparent problems have the silver lining of opportunity.
A common issue is budget squeeze. Washington State has a regressive tax structure – we have no personal or corporate income tax, so most agencies depend upon sales tax, property tax and user fees. Revenues are down across the board and every city and county faces cuts. At the conference – ACCIS or the Association of City/County Information Systems – we brainstormed a variety of responses to this challenge.
In many cases these are an “across-the-board” 5% or 10% cut. In some cases they are hiring freezes or elimination of vacant positions. I could write a whole column on this subject alone, but I’ll simply say this: if you are a government CIO or IT manager anyplace in the United States, fill your vacant positions as quickly as possible. Yes, you may end up laying off these new hires next year, but at least a hiring freeze or a unilateral cut of vacant positions across your government (both quite regressive tactics for dealing with fiscal problems, incidently) won’t hurt so much when you are fully staffed. In fact, filling vacancies rapidly at all times is good advice for managers of any government function.
Here are some of the “silver linings of opportunity” which these managers are actively exploring in response to revenue shortfalls:
• Saying “no”. When your budget is cut 10%, you have to do 10% less work. You’ve got to shut down some existing projects or somehow reduce the workload. Does the CIO make a unilateral decision? Absolutely not – this is where governance comes into play. The CIO needs a group of line department directors or another set of business executives in City government to make the hard decisions about what gets a “no” and what work continues. In fact, such a group should be making such decisions in good times as well as bad. The opportunity: increased collaboration between departments on behalf of the people we serve. P.S. A “take no prisoners”-touch City Manager will substitute as decision maker, in a pinch.
• Centralization and consolidation of the IT function within a government. I spoke to one small city where each department purchased its own computers, so there were a whole variety of hardware and software versions. This is an expensive, labor-intensive approach to IT. But consolidation of IT work and standardization of procurement and software are a great response to tight funding. The opportunity: improved efficiency and effectiveness in government.
• Regionalization: I’m a great fan of work being done by the eCitygov alliance in some of the suburbs of Seattle. This is a group of a dozen cities who are working together to present some common applications for use by their customers. These include building permits, parks, mapping and now jobs/human resources. See more here. The opportunity: If more cities and counties could share applications and help each other out, we could cut costs and improve service.
• Virtualization. Virtualization is putting many “virtual” servers on a single physical server. This trick not only saves hardware costs, but reduces electricity use, cooling costs, and maintenance. Wow. Talk about a triple-whammy opportunity!
• Hosted applications. Governments have this penchant for doing everything ourselves. Has to be done with our employees on our hardware. But the blunt fact is this: we can use applications hosted elsewhere, via the Internet. We can implement much faster and with less expense. There is an ongoing monthly cost, but in many cases the other benefits outweigh that. Years ago the City of Seattle outsourced production of its payroll, and we’ve not regretted it. Indeed, the regionalization mentioned above is just a unique, government-based, approach to hosted solutions.
Budget crunch time is when we’ll be pushed to implement these solutions. Revenue shortfalls provide opportunities for IT managers, smart City/County managers and saavy Mayors to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their governments through wise use of technology. And the folks in ACCIS are just the ones to make it happen.