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Case Study: A Lesson From Mr. Goodwrench

IT officials take a lesson from Mr. Goodwrench and put IT proposals through an in-depth inspection before letting them hit the roads of Fairfax County, Va.

Take a vehicle in for an oil change, and you may get more than the standard lube, oil and filter. Better-quality shops may offer an 18-point inspection, in which mechanics eyeball every critical aspect of your vehicle before pronouncing it roadworthy.

Before deeming information technology projects investment-worthy, Fairfax County, Va., officials run them through a similarly detailed inspection. The engine powering Fairfax County’s inspection is an exhaustive set of performance measurement standards that are used to filter and designate the proposed IT initiatives that will be of greatest value to its burgeoning population. (See “Goals and Guiding Principles ” on page 23.)

 

Standards and Service

“Performance measures grew from what used to be management indicators that were output-oriented,” says Catherine Spage, fiscal administrator for the county’s Department of Information Technology (DIT). “But performance measures are very outcome-oriented. We’re no longer looking just at how much money was saved; we’re trying to show that cost savings are a piece of it, but they’re not the whole story.

It’s ‘What efficiencies do we gain? What service quality was added? What was the outcome? How does it benefit the citizens?’”

County employees interpret the wants and needs of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and set priorities for the budget plan that serves as the county’s strategic plan. Each department has its own strategic plan, which is included in the master strategic document.

“You can literally look at the strategic plan for a department and then look at the budget document for the year and see parallels—where a department wants to go and where the county as a whole wants to go,” says CIO David Molchany. Built into each department’s budget are performance measures. “There is a whole performance management culture built around what we do and how we do it and what the benefit is,” he adds.

Contributing to the cohesive overview of the county’s IT initiatives is Molchany’s dual role as CIO and one of Fairfax County’s four deputy county executives. Molchany oversees IT, cable communications, consumer protection, public libraries, document services and archives, as well as compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996. He also works with the Economic Development Authority and the Office of Public Affairs.

In addition, Molchany chairs the county’s Senior IT Steering Committee, which includes the county executive, the other deputy county executives, the director of management and budget, and Wanda Gibson, the county’s chief technology officer and director of DIT. Members of the Senior IT Steering Committee include the executives who oversee every facet of county operations.

Step by Step

A proposal review by the Senior IT Steering Committee is just one step in the county’s lengthy review and approval process. After the committee approves a proposal, it goes into the proposed budget in February.

The next stop for the proposal is the county’s IT Policy Advisory Committee. Committee members, 10 of whom are appointed by the Board of Supervisors, advise county officials on IT investments. Additional members come from organizations such as the Northern Virginia Technology Council, League of Women Voters, Chamber of Commerce and Fairfax County Public Schools.

“We meet with them monthly and explain what we’re thinking about investing in, and we get their thoughts,” Molchany says of the committee.

Projects that clear the committee go to the Board of Supervisors. A board-approved project proposal may have any of the 309 DIT staff or about 150 decentralized IT staff members who report to other county departments assigned to help guide the project to fruition.

“We have one set of standards, one architecture, one approach to IT, one methodology and one project management certification course that everyone has to take, so IT is very centralized,” Molchany says. “But we also recognized that having a very centralized IT department, we had to have a very collaborative environment.”

Working together, county IT staff may even revitalize project proposals that failed to win approval. In reviewing those projects, IT officials can determine which of them ultimately fit the county’s overarching strategy. They may collaboratively decide that the necessary staff isn’t yet in place, the technology is too new or it can’t be implemented in a short period of time, so waiting a year might make the proposed project more cost-effective.

“We have a debriefing process if [projects] do not get approved or funded,” says David Bartee, the county’s IT project portfolio manager. “Agencies can request to come in, and we’ll go through the proposal with them and review it from both the business side and the technical side. So far, it has been an effective process: It’s well-received, and it’s appreciated by the agency. In most cases, they are encouraged to resubmit the proposal in the next cycle.”

Inspectors’ Gadgets

One such retooled project is the e-permitting system. County officials turned the proposal around to make the e-permitting component one of the last phases of the project, and made the first phase a complaint-handling component.

The next phase was improving the inspections systems. Later this year, building inspectors, as well as inspectors from the health and fire departments, will get handheld computers. E-permitting will follow, and electronic document submission by the builders will be the last step.

“All inspectors do a part of the building inspection process, and we said, ‘You’re going to use one system, one solution, one handheld, and you’re all going to be part of this project and you’re going to be one of the first phases of the project,’” Molchany says.

“The e-permitting side is going to be one of the last phases, because we want to make sure we have the right technology solution,” says Molchany. “The very last phase of that is going to be electronic plan submission, because the technology really isn’t there right now to do it properly.”

Initially, Fairfax County officials looked at e-permitting and then talked with vendors to find out what they could do and spoke with other organizations to see what they were doing. The county’s request for proposals (RFPs) included questions regarding capabilities: What does your software do? How does it do it? What components do you have?

The county asked vendors that responded to the RFP to demonstrate their software so the staff could see how it really worked. Molchany, as the project’s executive sponsor, took a team to Silicon Valley to review that region’s Smart Permit. Then the components were organized in the way the staff felt worked best for Fairfax County.

“We did an enormous amount of up-front research,” Molchany recalls. “We broke the project into pieces and determined which piece to do, in what order. We put the newest technology and the things that seemed to be on the cutting edge last so that someone else might have done that by the time we got there, and we might be able to copy what the others were doing.

“But the bottom line is that we really thought about how the project should be done. We pushed the investment off by about a fiscal year so we were really set to go.”

Best Value Prevails

PM could stand for either performance measurement or project management. But in Fairfax County, the derivation matters less than having a project manager on board.

Senior officials assigned to a project possess project management skills, but, as agency business leaders, they may not have IT project management skills. When the project manager is not an IT professional, the rule of “best value” prevails.

“When we go out to the market to compete for the best solution, we’re not selecting the lowest cost price,” says Gibson. The more important selection criteria are whether “the solution is solid, the solution provider is a stable business and, for this dollar amount, we’re going to get what we need,” she says. “So we don’t go out for the lowest cost in selecting technology solutions and services for our IT projects; we make a determination based on the best overall value.

“As a matter of fact, when we conduct this process, the technical evaluation is done even before we see the business proposal. We don’t allow the selection committee to see the costs until they have looked at all of the submissions and decided which one fits what we’re looking for.”

Gibson explains that the selection committee then gets the cost proposals of the finalists—there might be four or five—and starts evaluating the costs and what they cover. She believes that’s a little different approach from how it’s handled in some other places.

“It comes down to how we invest, why we make those investments and how it all comes together,” Molchany says. “The bottom line is to achieve sustainable government that is not growing its head count. Because our head count is not growing, we have to be more efficient, more effective and supportive of our growing population, including the business community, with the people we have.”

IT Priorities

The Fairfax County, Va., Department of Information Technology revalidated its priorities for fiscal 2006:

Meeting mandated requirements
Leveraging of prior investments
Enhancing county security
Improving service quality and efficiency
Ensuring a current and supportable technology infrastructure

Goals and Guiding Principles

To attain its objective of delivering innovative and quality IT solutions, the Department of Information Technology in Fairfax County, Va., established eight goals and 10 guiding principles.

EIGHT GOALS

• Work as a team to deliver a fast, effective response

• Lead in evaluating new technologies and implementing proven ones

• Use IT to make government accessible

• Deliver the best IT solutions that serve county business

• Ensure an effective communications infrastructure

• Inform county agencies of IT initiatives

• Attract, train and retain a skilled IT staff

• Effectively manage IT projects and contracts

10 PRINCIPLES

• Use IT to make information and services available to citizens, business and government

• Partner with stakeholders to ensure business needs drive IT use

• Evaluate processes before automating them

• Manage IT as an investment

• Implement contemporary, but proven, technology

• Whenever practicable, opt for open standards

• Ensure the health and usability of the enterprise network

• Make IT initiatives a partnership with agencies and the private sector

• Use off-the-shelf software whenever practicable

• Capture data once and enable the secure sharing of data across agencies

Source: Fairfax County, Va., Department of Information Technology

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Oct 31 2006

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