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10 Things Your Information Technology Director Wants You to Know

Laura Peabody is president of the Municipal Information Systems Association of California (MISAC) and chief information officer for the City of Walnut Creek. She can be reached at peabody@ci.walnut-creek.ca.us. For more information about MISAC, visit www.misac.org.

Recently, I asked participants in the Municipal Information Systems Association of California (MISAC) listserv what they wished their elected officials, city managers, department heads and other decision-makers knew about technology. The topic struck a chord, and a lively discussion of a "Top 10 List" ensued.

The following list summarizes the most common replies, but the assigned numbers do not necessarily reflect "rank" in the discu ssion. Not everything made the final list, so check with your agency’s chief information officer (CIO) or information technol ogy director to see if there’s something else he or she would like to discuss. Or contact your local MISAC representative; information is online at www.misac.org .

MISAC members are senior information technology or information systems (IT or IS) staff from agencies throughout the state. While they come from a variety of technology backgrounds, from large systems and agencies to small, some thoughts were nearly universal; for example, the need for ongoing funding of technology infrastructure. Several members wished their decision-makers had a better un derstanding of the difficulty of managing technology that changes constantly, when there are high expectations but limited resources. Still others wanted to remind executives to be wary of overly optimistic sales people. All of us want to be sure we understand our agency’s strategic initiatives and work effectively to support them. So, with thanks to all the MISAC members who participated, here are 10 things CIOs and IT directors want you to know.

Successful IT projects require executive/city manager support and a partnership between IT and the department with the business need. "Support" includes knowing the project fits into a vision and how, as well as having a supportive executive who wants the project to succeed and will hold participants accountable. "Partnership" means both the department and IT are responsible, the participation of both is required, and neither can do it alone. The real benefits of any system are not in IT; they are in the business unit(s) sponsoring the system. Establish a formal policy governing the technology-enabled project initiation, funding, benefits and ongoing support needs, and clearly identify and hold accountable all parties benefiting from the project. Know how you will measure success, and celebrate successful projects as they happen.

Regardless of the organization- al level, involve IT up front in strategizing solutions to complex business problems. Just as it is easier and much cheaper to change lines on a blueprint than to move walls once the building is finished, the same principle applies to technology systems and planning.

Technology is not a one-time investment. Agencies must establish funding to continually update, upgrade and replace the things that keep the infrastructure up and running. Project justification should consider the full cost of each new system. Networks, computers, software, printers and security devices require regular maintenance, upgrades and personnel to keep them running well. Requirements for electronic storage and backups also grow over time. Like streets and vehicles, systems must be maintained, and that requires an ongoing funding source, which could include internal service funds and/or development fees dedicated to technology needs.

Technology is a tool, not a solution. Define and understand the business requirements first; pick the software and hardware last. And remember that salespeople may paint an incomplete picture of the project’s complexity and costs.

Focus IT resources where they add value. Every technological advancement, implementation or project requires commitment of IT staff time. Consider that impact when deciding which projects to approve. Three small projects that may individually require only 15 percent of an IT staff person’s time, collectively represent half of a full-time job. Frequently when something electronic is replaced, the replacement equipment has software and/or a computer running it, and both require IT support. Adding technology to improve efficiency or reduce workload in one department is likely to increase the IT workload.

Demanding that IT projects be completed quickly and cheaply without integrating them with each other may be a recipe for higher costs in the long run. It may cost more to maintain individual systems, and eventu ally there will be a reason to integrate them. Integration between existing disparate systems after implementation often costs more than integration done prior to the "go-live" stage.

Recognize that governmental agencies compete with the private sector for competent talent. Make sure your agency is competing effectively with its compensation packages for IT personnel. Fund training to keep skills current, and encourage cross-training. Provide enough staff resources to do the job, and be aware that losing talented staff to burnout can have huge impacts on projects, support and overall costs. Running an IT shop with just one person leaves the agency vulnerable to sudden illness, career changes and the like. Loss of key staff may cripple your technology systems in the short run.

Be wary of IT projects justified only by job elimination or workforce reduction. Most municipal IT projects don’t result in the complete elimination of enough jobs to pay for the system. Typically, IT makes relatively low-level jobs obsolete and frees the benefactor to accomplish more high-level job functions. This does not necessarily lead to hard dollar cost savings, but it can lead to service enhancements.

Recognize that technology projects are complex. When implementing new business systems, executives must:

  • Be patient and give the team the latitude to experiment and even make some mistakes;
  • Realize that the most difficult and challenging period in the project implementation life cycle will happen after the go-live stage;
  • Ensure there is a credible project plan and manage according to that plan, but be ready to modify it when new information is available;
  • Understand and support change;
  • Evaluate and assign the correct departmental resources to the project;
  • Know that when a problem arises, usually it is not the hardware or the software; suspect the "org-ware" (organizational issues);
  • Keep in mind there are three desirables in any business systems project: good, fast and cheap. But you can’t usually achieve all three in the same project.

Disaster recovery, consumer data protection and security are not optional, nor are they free. Don’t ignore or avoid issues of technology and data security. Executive management and elected officials need to be in tune with computer and data security issues and the resources (staff, training and technology) required to defend against near-constant attacks on networks, websites and e-mail. Agencies that fail to protect systems do so at great risk. A breach of some type could bring lack of security quickly to the forefront and the front page.