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Getting the Most IT From Taxpayer Dollars

Effective negotiating, good management and new approaches deliver government goods in Cook County, Ill.

If you look at the number of users, applications, traffic levels and responsibilities that my group — Cook County’s Bureau of Information Technology and Automation — supports, you see a “hockey stick” growth curve: It’s slow and steady for a while, then suddenly there’s very sharp growth. Yet our costs over the same timeframe have been remarkably stable — even going down. That’s a good thing, because the county budget, which includes our funding, is set, and we have to live within it.

Here are some of the ways we’ve succeeded in getting the most IT products and services for taxpayers’ dollars and how we’re making the most effective use of what we buy.

The most important factor in our success has been our reporting structure. We report not to a CFO, but to the president of the Cook County Board and the commissioners.

Thanks to the support of Board President John H. Stroger Jr., we can take a longer, broader view. Rather than aim for less expensive short-term solutions, we take long-term approaches with requests for proposals. In addition, we pursue infrastructure improvements and IT projects that have longer returns on investment. This approach enables us to save millions of dollars and build with an eye toward the next generation of IT-based services for employees and residents.

COUNTY-LEVEL NEGOTIATING

Whether it’s enabling offices to save 30 percent on $300 toner cartridges or saving the county $2 million to $3 million on the several thousand PCs we buy annually, we negotiate wherever possible. Buying at a countywide level enables us to secure the highest possible discounts. When we write a contract, it includes the pricing on maintenance and service, not just hardware. That way, a vendor can’t come back later with a price increase.

PRODUCTIVE STAFF

We have about 65 programmers and 25 people in office desktop support, but industry standards call for 2.5 times that many. We’ve been able to sustain and grow our workload while losing about 25 staffers through attrition during the past nine years.

Because our staff knows the systems and the county, they can build and modify applications quickly. We rarely need to bring in outside help to make changes, so our payroll costs remain fixed. We’ve saved probably $2 million during the past five years by not bringing in consultants to implement changes.

I.T. MANTRA

Centralization, consolidation and standardization has been our mantra regarding servers, software, networks and facilities. The result has been tremendous savings in money and time — including reducing IT costs by an estimated 20 percent or more.

We consolidated from 35 local area networks down to three, which means fewer boxes and less software to manage. We eliminated almost 20 legacy midrange servers and have only two left, reducing maintenance and training costs. We even standardized the layouts, wire coloring schemes, and other aspects of our telecom closets and computer rooms. We also consolidated applications. When I arrived in 1997, there were three separate payroll systems. Today, there’s only one.

TAKING AN ENTERPRISE APPROACH

We select products that we expect to run for many years, and we select vendors with painless migration strategies that let us avoid “forklift upgrades.”

We’ve built up the county network connecting our 86 buildings and 129 municipalities, letting us do more for less. We’ve probably saved 20 percent in network costs, while dramatically increasing the number of users: Our usage bill today for 50,000 phone lines and 35,000 data lines is less than our voice network cost five years ago. By using the county network to do least-cost routing for all calls, we’ve saved about $8 million annually in usage charges.

There are always more projects to tackle, when the budget permits. But through aggressive negotiating, enterprise-grade consolidation and planning, savvy staff, and working with the departments and agencies we serve, we’ve been able to accomplish a remarkable amount — without going over our budget.

Oct 31 2006

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