Considerations for NYS Counties: An Insiders View on Leveraging IT

By Meghan Cook, Program Director at the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany, in partnership with the NYS Local Government Information Technology Directors Association (NYSLGITDA).

Over the last 10 years, I've gone from outsider to insider with a statewide group of county Information Technology (IT) leaders. During this time, I've listened, learned, and participated in behind-the-scenes discussions of county IT. I've also been able to help leaders navigate the complexities of transforming their counties into 21st century public service organizations.

I've learned a lot from these countless hours of presentations, stories, and yes, maybe a couple of happy hours with the NYS Local Government IT Directors Association.

Your IT Leader: A Strategic Partner
In every NYS county there is a person (and department) who have both the breadth and depth of understanding how all the county departments work together. Their job is to make sure the business of government keeps running; essentially, they are the engineer of all moving parts. This is your IT leader.

But your IT leader's title is probably misleading; they don't do only what their title says. They, and their staff, are business-of-government leaders who understand how IT investments will bring value while saving time, money and frustration. Bring them in on every discussion, every idea, and take advantage of their ability to take both a birdseye view and devil-in-the-details approach. Unfortunately, their ability to provide this dual perspective isn't always leveraged, and often it's because they are seen as a technician rather than a strategic partner.

Prospering counties have figured out how to leverage what their IT leader (and department) knows, including the big picture of operations, all the way down to the specific processes that support each department. IT leaders have a critical skill set and a perspective that makes them unique within the county government structure. They know that a change or investment in one department has IT implications in another. They also know that many times, the total cost of ownership hasn't been considered, but that's ok. It is their job to think about how everything fits together, and what it will take to succeed long term.

From investments in public safety, social services, property management or even financial management, the IT leader carries around the underlying organizational blueprint and most times, can accurately connect and predict impacts and implications. Tapping this knowledge base even before the conversation has “turned IT” can make or break an investment for a county. Using this in-house resource is essential for any county that wants to leverage IT and information to bring the most value to the county.

IT Innovators, Experts, Problem-Solvers
IT is integral to everything a county does - it ties everything together. And maybe it's because every county employee has their hands on some form of IT from sunrise to sunset, that there are widely propagated myths about it. The following two seem to plague many NYS counties:

 Myth 1: IT is only a cost center and not a revenue center
 Myth 2: IT decisions can be made by anyone from any department

Let's start with the first one. Counties that treat IT investments like a cost center, meaning only as the independent expenditures like hardware, software, infrastructure, and networking associated with each department's IT needs will result, not surprisingly, in a set of IT expenditures categorized by departments. You get what you ask for. This approach offers far less opportunity for savings and potential revenue that would otherwise occur for counties that leverage IT in investment and strategic planning.

When a county begins to see IT as an infrastructure innovator that leverages investments from across all departments, they can optimize economies of scale and set forth designs that reduce duplication, increase cross system interoperability, promote data sharing, and employ common technologies. The thinking becomes less about a department's IT needs, and more about a county's infrastructure and the foundation needed to carry out numerous lines of business.

The second myth is that people are knowledgeable about technology because they use it every day. This leads them to believe they can plan and weigh-in on large scale technology decisions within the county government. The “consumerization” of IT can cause unintended negative consequences. When departments or executive county leaders describe the technologies they want based on their personal consumer technology experiences (i.e. owning a smart phone or tablet), there is little opportunity to leverage IT expertise and knowledge. There are significant differences between consumerbased technologies and institutional technologies. The solution that works at a county government level will be different than the solution that works at home.

What some counties have learned is that departments shouldn't describe the technologies they want; instead, IT leaders should ask departments about the problems they are trying to solve. Departments know their business best and IT leaders know how to leverage IT and information. Together they can develop a solution that serves the county as a whole.

A Strategic Roadmap for Smart Investments
County leaders make investment decisions of all sizes every day with the intention of moving their county in the right direction. But what is the right direction?

Counties that have the most meaningful and continuous success are those with a collectively vetted vision and strategic roadmap. It sounds cliché and even simplistic, but a strategic roadmap is a touchstone that guides each investment decision, including IT. It offers a check and balance system, lays out milestones, and provides a set of actions by which to measure.

If a county doesn't have a strategic roadmap (and one that's been vetted by all departments), then investment decisions are made by those who make the most noise or who hold the most power. This leads to short-term fixes and silos that result in a compounded set of redundancies, inefficiencies, and deficiencies.

It's no secret that investment decisions in government are risky. There is very little, if any, room for error. Therefore, it is no secret that the counties with a collective vision and strategic roadmap have a leg up. They have a guide to move the entire county in a direction they promised the citizens they would. But without a roadmap, there is no way to measure its merit against the county's vision. So when you are ready to develop your roadmap, make sure your IT leader, along with all your department heads and community leaders, are by your side. When everyone is looking at the same map, you'll be headed in the right direction – and you'll all know when you get there.