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Banding Together

Government IT leaders bust through jurisdictional boundaries to share services and drive cost efficiencies.

In Wisconsin, IT security administrators have focused on intrusion detection technology to keep intruders out of the state's information systems. Across the mighty Mississippi, their peers in Minnesota have placed an emphasis on intrusion prevention. Now comes time for a meeting of the minds.

"We've taken two fairly different approaches, and security people from both sides are interested in picking up the experience and skills in areas the other has specialized in," says Oskar Anderson, CIO for the state of Wisconsin.

The IT departments of these two Midwestern states are exchanging best practices, transferring skills and otherwise collaborating on a broad range of technology projects, from security to e-mail and server consolidation. And they're not alone.

Forward-thinking state and local government IT leaders are stepping beyond their jurisdictional comfort zones in search of better, cheaper and simpler ways of providing services to their constituencies. "The economic downturn and the budget deficits many state and local governments face are huge drivers for going to shared services for intra- and intergovernmental use," says Thom Rubel, practice director of government programs for research firm IDC Government Insights. "The cost-savings potential now takes precedence over traditional organizational or cultural arguments."

Minnesota CIO Gopal Khanna confirms that assessment. "Good government today means being fiscally responsible and looking for opportunities where we can better leverage the taxpayer's money -- and a taxpayer is a taxpayer no matter where he or she lives," says Khanna.

Citing an example of ways states can collaborate, Minnesota CIO Gopal Khanna says his state shared software code for an unemployment system with Iowa.

Photo Credit: John Noltner

Khanna, who recently completed his term as president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), maintains cross-boundary partnerships and collaborative initiatives in his state. Iowans, for example, stand to benefit from the work Minnesota completed several years ago on an unemployment insurance system. Because the state's software contract allowed it to share with other jurisdictions, Minnesota was able to provide the code to Iowa, which in turn lifted about 90 percent of it and reportedly saved tens of millions of dollars in development costs, Khanna says.

Where's Minnesconsin?

Likewise, Wisconsinites will gain from various Minnesota IT initiatives, and vice versa. Khanna and Anderson are working together as part of the "Minnesconsin" initiative announced early in 2009 by their governors to identify opportunities for sharing services, including but not limited to IT.

Already, the state of Wisconsin has saved slightly more than $100,000 in software licensing costs, Anderson says. "Using Minnesota's pricing, we were able to renegotiate our contract and save ourselves a fair amount of money," he explains.

Under Khanna's guidance, Minnesota has established procurement standards for software and a wide range of IT gear, including desktop and notebook computers and monitors, cell phones, storage arrays and routers. On some devices, the state is realizing savings of up to 44 percent; and now that Wisconsin hopes to extract more of these standards for its use, Minnesota expects to see costs drop even further, Khanna says.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments shares enterprise resource planning software with the cities of Arlington, Carrollton and Grand Prairie.

Other areas of interest include the notion of sharing data center space, the CIOs say. Wisconsin already has a Tier 4 data center, while Minnesota has a new data center on the drawing board. Each state could rely on the other's data center as a backup site, they surmise. "We'd have a good distance between the two data centers and wouldn't have to worry about both being affected by the same disaster," Anderson says.

Sharing data center space isn't an uncommon idea, but one more typically presented by a state to its municipalities. "When you talk purely about capacity and sharing IT infrastructure state to state or city to city, that's still young in conversation," says Rubel, of IDC Government Insights. "But bottom line: There's no reason that those conversations shouldn't take place. Nothing is standing in the way."

Sharing in South Florida

Sometimes, what's not in the way -- meaning, rack upon rack of computing hardware -- might provide the needed opening, says Bryan Sastokas, CIO for the city of Coral Springs, Fla.

Thanks to a server and storage overhaul, the city recently regained approximately 1,500 square feet in one of its data centers. Using VMware virtualization running on HP blade systems, the city knocked down the number of physical servers by 100. On the storage side, it saved about 1.5 terabytes of space by migrating from network-attached storage to a Network Appliance storage area network and deploying data deduplication technology, Sastokas says.

"We had undertaken these projects to increase performance and improve efficiency, and we got the nice byproduct of reducing our footprint," Sastokas says. "With all the extra space, we had to ask, ‘Now what?' "

Enter the city of Miami, which had been exploring backup options. After tossing around some ideas, Sastokas and his counterpart in Miami decided a one-for-one space swap would provide each city with the IT safety net they wanted without causing undue investment, he says.

The arrangement represents a revenue boost for Coral Springs, too. As the smaller city, Coral Springs needs slightly less space in Miami's data center than Miami needs in its. Per terms of the agreement, Miami will pay a nominal monthly fee of $500 per rack beyond the number of racks Coral Springs places in the Miami data center, Sastokas explains.

On top of that, Coral Springs has been able to shelve plans to find a managed collocation services provider, to the tune of about $1,200 per rack per month, he adds. On an annual basis, Sastokas estimates that sharing data center space will help the city avoid as much as $120,000 in data center costs.

Hopefully, Sastokas says, the collaboration won't stop with Miami. "We have plenty of space still, and we're pursuing other cities in south Florida. My goal is to show that this model can work, and local government can operate differently," he says.

County Collaboration in Michigan

While IT executives in south Florida mull over Sastokas' shared services pitch, their counterparts in southeast Michigan long ago embraced the notion of cross-boundary technology partnerships. Phil Bertolini, CIO of Oakland County, Mich., explains the philosophy: "When we consider an application, we look horizontally across all 82 county departments and divisions, as well as vertically down to the 62 cities, villages and towns in the county."

That type of all-encompassing view dates to the mid-1990s, when the county realized that a handful of local municipalities had embarked on Geographic Information Systems (GIS) projects. "So we said, ‘Everybody stop. Let's just do one GIS initiative, which the county will fund. We'll provide the hardware, software, training and maintenance on your behalf,' " Bertolini says. "Today we have one GIS for all of Oakland County, which all 62 communities use."

The initial GIS project cost $10 million, but the county believes taxpayers would have footed a bill three times that size had each individual project proceeded. "We saved the taxpayers $20 million by doing it all together," he says.

Other examples abound. The Courts and Law Enforcement Management Information Systems (CLEMIS) provides criminal justice information to more than 200 public safety agencies, including fire and police, in six southeastern Michigan counties. Bertolini says it's the largest public safety data consortium in the country.

And the county recently forged an alliance whereby it is providing the Michigan Department of Agriculture with a web-enabled environmental health system module for food inspections. The state, in turn, will strip out the Oakland County specifics to make it more generic so it can give the modules to all other counties in Michigan.

Even though Bertolini is a veteran of cross-boundary collaboration, this program makes him particularly proud. "I don't think I've ever heard of a local government providing something to the state -- it's usually the other way around," he says. "But I'm a true believer that we need to work together."

Four Changes for Local I.T. Leaders

The nature of IT at the local government level is undergoing significant change, says Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute, a technology organization for cities and counties. Here's what the future holds in store for top technology managers or CIOs in local government, he says:

  1. Skill Sets: Technologists will no longer need to be top technicians but instead will need to be top information gurus. "These people need to be much more in tune with the politics, able to speak many different languages -- meaning, in a bureaucratic way. They can't be isolated in the basement making sure everybody's BlackBerrys are working," Shark says.
  2. Toolsets: IT leaders will require tools that allow them to focus on policies, procedures and integration -- not what's going on in a data center.
  3. Innovation: CIOs must think outside the box, identifying how technology will provide improvements for citizens in ways that haven't been done yet.
  4. Internal Relationships: Technologists will need to work more closely with public affairs personnel to ensure the public interfaces -- such as the web -- are user-friendly and have the latest applications that engage citizens.
Dec 09 2009

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