Article Web Exclusive Tim Williamsen

How Maintaining Your IT Investment Can Help Your City Survive the Economic Downturn

Tim Williamsen is information technology manager for the City of Petaluma and can be reached at or

In the current depressed economy, tips for saving money abound. Reducing staff, cutting services and delaying new programs are some common solutions to municipal budget challenges. Yet there’s another way to save that may not be as obvious: strategic planning, purchasing for and operation of your city’s information technology (IT) center.

IT: A Strategic Long-Term Investment

Unlike machinery, property or other capital expenditures, information technology is a strategic investment in your organization’s ability to effectively and efficiently conduct internal operations and to deliver services to the public and other city departments.

Your city’s IT investment affects numerous areas of operation. A well-configured system with properly collected and input data leverages staff’s abilities to perform their tasks and maintain or increase service levels. For example, a well-constructed and comprehensive website addresses the public’s desire for instant, comprehensive information and access to payment systems around the clock, seven days a week. What’s more, your existing IT structure has likely achieved an efficiency that would be difficult — and costly — to restore. A properly staffed IT department includes a broad variety of talent whose special skills in programming, databases, servers, network, desktops, applications, security and web functions don’t necessarily overlap.

Approach IT Expenditures With a New Mindset

Updating and upgrading hardware and software and maintaining service agreements incur costs. Possibly because of the costs involved, finance and purchasing professionals often view technology contracts through the same lens as public works contracts for things like bridges and roads that are customized and designed from scratch.

However, each IT item is actually more of a commodity and more appropriately aligned with the purchasing model for commodities than with the contracting model for large scale public works projects that are put out for bids and awarded as a one-time event. The time required to make a purchase using a contracting model can render your chosen system – and the planning involved in identifying that system — obsolete. Using a commodity-type purchasing model provides the nimble action needed for the timely purchases required in the ever-changing technology arena.

Make Your IT Investment Work for You

Taking action in four critical areas will help maximize your city’s IT investment without necessarily incurring additional costs:

  • Maintain your investment;
  • Establish standards that best address the greatest number of needs;
  • Consider data and storage needs; and
  • Don’t scrimp on security.

Maintain Your Investment

Maintaining and upgrading both hardware and software are critically important to sustain the level of quality in service and use.

Software is developed quickly, but not always thoroughly. Keeping up with software upgrades protects your system’s efficiency and effectiveness. Patches and upgrades are not marketing gimmicks; they are important additions that correct original manufacturer flaws and vulnerabilities and increase system efficiency and effectiveness.

Software maintenance is subscribed to rather than purchased. Not only is a request to “purchase” a new maintenance contract technically incorrect, it often raises red flags for your purchasing agent. Instead, submit a request to renew your maintenance subscription or agreement.

Don’t get stuck mid-year with an unbudgeted maintenance payment, and don’t forget to include maintenance agreements in next year’s budget and beyond. The dollar amount involved in a maintenance contract can exceed the limit of many purchase orders and consequently bump the request into the contracts category when, in fact, the maintenance agreement is a recurring item that you’ve already agreed to. Such confusion can cause delays and service disruptions.

Establish Standards That Best Address the Greatest Number of Needs

The purpose of IT is to accommodate the needs of the organization, the staff who operate it and the people it serves. The varied demands of any large organization will inevitably provide a reminder that you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Identify the common threads among your IT system’s users and their service needs. These common needs will inform your decisions about hardware and software investments to provide the best balance of flexibility and variety.

Integrate the notion of compromise as your mantra for establishing standards for your IT investments. For example, establishing one brand or manufacturer as your standard and purchasing only that brand’s stations and hardware mean that your technicians need to learn only one type of system repair. Each time you limit the variety of equipment and software purchased, you improve maintainability and enjoy cost-saving benefits by:

  • Containing costs;
  • Taking advantage of economies of scale in terms of better purchase/subscription discounts;
  • Avoiding placing a strain on your support resources; and
  • Simplifying IT staff training in maintenance and support.

Consider Your Data and Storage Needs

California ’s Public Records Act and the Brown Act retention and disclosure requirements govern information and data storage. Although some city staff may think of document retention in terms of hard copy or word processing files, it also includes e-mail, voice mail (including cell phones), instant messaging and blogs.

Purchase enough disk space to handle your data and storage needs, including space for back up, general storage and growth, but not so much that staff fills it with data because the space “is there.” The ability to contain and retrieve data is central to efficient IT operation and the best use of your disk space. Purchasing additional storage is cheap, but buying too much may create a costly data management challenge.

Don’t Scrimp on Security

Looking for potential savings in IT security can cost far more in the long run than it saves. A secure system promises many advantages by:

  • Providing accountability;
  • Preventing user errors, such as the ability to move or delete files inappropriately;
  • Preventing sabotage;
  • Providing a high level of security with digital signatures; and
  • Avoiding the costs incurred by errors and security disasters.

Many entities, such as the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council, require certain levels of security to ensure that data is stored, handled and transmitted safely.

Decide What to Purchase and Act Quickly

Information technology changes quickly: the hardware design, the components and software. For that reason, planning for flexibility and having a contingency plan are paramount. Making prompt decisions and acting on them quickly enable you to:

  • Take advantage of purchase and/or subscription discounts; and
  • Avoid unplanned charges caused by delays. For example, if you build your security system for one type of software, by the time you’re ready to actually make the purchase, the version may have changed, immediately compromising the effectiveness of the system or causing you to rethink the software and incur even more delays.

Finally, keep in mind that the work of your city’s IT staff affects every department, including public safety. While it may seem that IT professionals are readily available for hire, skilled and experienced IT professionals are hard to find. Once found, assimilating them into the organization is more complex and time consuming than for employees in other areas. Maintaining your IT organization is a strategic investment that will provide returns well into the future.

This article appears in the June 2009 issue of Western City
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