Call it extreme makeover, city hall style. Some of the nation’s city halls are undergoing technology overhauls to bring systems and infrastructures up to date. In some cases, the IT upgrade is part of a revamping of existing facilities; in others, it accompanies a move to a new building.
Either way, an IT makeover for city hall can be a daunting project, requiring planning and forward-looking strategizing in selecting technology. However, a successful IT makeover can help cities better serve residents and boost productivity.
The city hall in Manistee, Mich., was “40 years past due” for a technology upgrade, says Jon Rose, community development director. “The decision to update the technology was part of a broader effort to upgrade the city hall in general,” he says. “Everything — including the meeting room, general infrastructure, electrical system and plumbing — was old and in need of modernization.”
The IT infrastructure was not an exception. “Our technology was quite dated,” says Ed Bradford, Manistee’s finance director. “In addition, there was no rhyme or reason for how networks were set up. We tended to keep the computers up to date, but the connections between the machines had been cobbled together. The phone system was particularly old.”
The council chamber was not conducive to holding meetings, Bradford says. There was no sound system or provision for multimedia presentations.
City officials planned a restoration that would transform the city hall into a modern facility designed to better serve the community now and in the future.
“If we didn’t put in cutting-edge technology, we would be doing a disservice to the taxpayers,” Bradford says. “We tried to be forward-looking, to put in place technology that would support our needs far down the road. We wanted to be flexible in how we designed the wiring in the building so that it could support multiple voice and data processes.”
The city hired Central Interconnect, a consulting firm in Grand Rapids, Mich., to help plan the upgrade and install new equipment. Officials leased a vacant middle school as a temporary facility to house government operations while city hall was revamped, and employees moved into the school in late 2003.
“We got another local consultant to wire the school for computers and a phone system,” says Bradford. “All we had to do was take the existing phones and computer systems and plug them in. We had less than an hour of downtime during the move, and the consultants managed the whole process.”
Manistee wired the entire city hall building with Category 6 cable and installed a fiber-optic backbone to link the three floors. The city installed wireless access points to provide wireless local area network coverage in select areas of the building and equipped the facility for high-speed Internet access. It also implemented a Toshiba digital phone system with built-in voice mail, which can be integrated with Microsoft Outlook applications.
“We wanted a system that would be able to grow with us, but that wasn’t so far out there in terms of being new that the quality would suffer,” Bradford says. “We ended up with a system that’s not pure Voice over IP [Internet Protocol], but is a digital system that supports IP telephony over remote locations.”
The council chamber meeting room has a control panel that lets users control audiovisual systems and lights from notebook PCs using wireless technology. The upgrade includes an automated screen for presentations, individual LCD panels for council members and an LCD projector with inputs from computers, televisions and VCRs.
Employees moved into the revamped city hall in August 2005. Officials kept within budget while delivering an IT infrastructure that would provide optimum support for workers.
For some city halls, an IT makeover is part of a move to a new building. San Jose, Calif., opened a new city hall in 2005, consolidating about 13 facilities that had housed various city departments. The move of 1,800 employees to a single location, which took place over 10 weekends beginning last June, was designed to improve service to residents.
“Before, to get things done — such as making payments or applying for permits — people had to bounce from building to building,” recalls Randy Murphy, San Jose’s interim CIO. “Now it’s a one-stop shop. The entire facility is designed around easy public access. There are public conference rooms on every floor.”
The city installed a Nortel voice and data network as the communications infrastructure in the 18-story building. The Voice over IP network lets employees make internal calls using IP; external calls are converted to regular phone lines.
“We see the [city’s] converged network as a way to lower our voice communication costs,” says Vijay Sammeta, division manager for communications and infrastructure.
The city installed more than 800 new desktop PCs running Microsoft Windows XP. The systems can support new applications, such as a utility billing system, which will link to a customer relationship management system. This will enable residents to check their account balances and other information by phone.
The new facility also includes a server-based data center, fiber-optic backbone, and security, backup and recovery systems, plus wireless access throughout the building.
The council chambers boast multifunction panel displays that let members vote electronically and send comments to the mayor. Constituents can watch proceedings via a large video screen in the chambers, and visitors to the city’s Web site can watch council meetings via streaming video.
San Jose operated its existing IT infrastructure during the transition, without interruption of services. “The core enterprise applications, such as HR, the Web site and e-mail, stayed put until we got everyone settled in the new building,” Sammeta says.
One key to ensuring a smooth move was to involve department managers and staff and to resolve issues early on. Murphy says a team consisting of high-level managers headed by the assistant city manager meets each week to discuss IT and other issues related to the new facility. The move also enables more centralized management of IT, according to Sammeta.
The city of Bellevue, Wash., moved into its new city hall earlier this year, taking over a 350,000-square-foot building. It wanted to consolidate all services, which had been in 11 locations, at one site so the city could provide improved service.
While Bellevue kept the same computers, servers and applications, the new city hall offers an enhanced IT infrastructure to support the city’s 900 employees, says CIO Toni Cramer. The IT infrastructure was built from scratch during a three-year period.
“The building has an incredibly robust, redundant infrastructure,” Cramer says, including backup power generators, an information security platform and protection against earthquake damage.
There are two main data centers, and the infrastructure was moved in phases to minimize downtime, Cramer says. There are redundant communications links and switches throughout the building, with cable linking different floors and an underground fiber-cable ring connecting the building with the outside world.
The move involved 48 technology vendors and contractors. “The level of detail was mind-boggling,” Cramer says. She recommends that any city making a similar move seek advice from people with expertise in designing IT infrastructures.
“It’s a massive project,” Cramer says. “You’ve got to coordinate functionality, budgets, vendors and timing.”
Bob Violino is a technology writer based in Massapequa Park, N. Y.