MICHAEL CANNON | Guest columnist
Chief information officer, International City/County Management Association
Information technology is an essential part of any local government. From your website to GIS to financial accounting and public works, etc., nearly every aspect of your operations depends on IT. As a local government leader, how do you know how your IT department is doing? Are user requests piling up? Are you getting complaints? Have projects failed or are they continually delayed? How is this affecting service delivery to the public and to internal departments? These are some of the questions that a thorough IT evaluation/assessment can provide the data to help answer.
Let’s start with definition of “evaluate,” which is to judge or determine the significant worth or quality of something. To evaluate you have to measure and use analytics. As business thought leader Peter Drucker stresses: “What gets measured, gets managed.”
To determine whether you are getting good “value” out of your IT department, you need to answer the following questions:
• Are things headed in the right direction?
• Does the staff understand the goals and strategic priorities of my municipality or county?
• Are they responsive?
• Do they give me the information I need?
• Are service interruptions infrequent?
• Are users satisfied with IT?
• Are IT employees satisfied with their leader?
• Is IT adequately funded?
• Are they keeping up with technology and with deadlines?
This sounds like a massive undertaking, but you can start by taking an inventory of your IT department. Gather performance measures and key performance indicators and examine how they are trending over time. Some examples can include number of users/number of support staff; IT budget/user; IT budget as a percentage of total general fund; and system availability, where 99 percent = 87 hours of annual downtime, and 99.99 percent = 52 minutes of annual downtime.
Another important part of the information gathering phase can include user satisfaction surveys; focus groups; key stakeholder interviews across all levels and all departments; auditors’ feedback; and training opportunities for users and for technical staff.
You also need to look at whether your IT is keeping up with the rapidly changing technology landscape. Are you using server and/or desktop virtualization? Do you support mobile devices, including personally owned devices of employees? Do you have mobile applications for employees and/or the public to use? Are you using cloud-based services? Do you have an integrated software solution like an ERP that can handle the myriad of functions required for your operations and transactions?
There are two approaches you can take to answering these questions and completing an IT assessment. You can conduct it in-house or you can use a consultant. Both have distinct advantages and disadvantages.
Taking the in-house approach has several advantages. The most important is that you know your IT department and local government the best. If you are on a tight budget, this may be the only option. It also allows you to go at your own pace when the timing is right, and you avoid the time-consuming bidding process of hiring a consultant. It’s important to pick an IT-knowledgeable staff person outside of the IT department to lead the effort, such as a deputy city manager.
There are disadvantages to this approach as well. You may not be able to get an objective evaluation depending on the personalities and reporting relationships of those involved. Your internal knowledge and capacity to thoroughly evaluate IT may not be sufficient. Gathering benchmarking data and comparing IT to other local governments will be challenging as well.
Hiring a consultant
Alternatively, you can use a consultant to perform the IT evaluation. There are many experienced technical experts with local government knowledge capable of performing the work. This approach will give you a more unbiased assessment, and it can be particularly useful if you expect that the findings could result in some tough personnel decisions or a major reorganization. Experienced consultants are more likely to have benchmarking and other comparative data to directly compare how your IT measures up to similar cities or counties.
One of the major disadvantages of using a consultant is the cost. Consultants’ hourly rates can vary considerably, but typically range from $150–$250 an hour. Working with consultants can also be a staff-intensive effort to manage and to respond to information requests. Since hiring a consultant usually involves going through a professional services bidding process, it’s going to increase visibility and raise expectations, which can be an advantage depending on the situation.
Communicate the findings
Once you have completed your IT assessment, it’s essential to communicate the findings to all of your stakeholders. You should plan internal reviews and presentations of the findings, but ultimately your elected officials and the public should also be informed. If it involves personnel decisions, you will need to consider how it will impact IT staff. Following change management techniques and HR guidance will be important aspects of any staff reductions or reorganization.
Grouping the findings into short-term and long-term is also an effective way to manage expectations and to help your stakeholders understand what will be done and when. It’s also important to follow through on the findings. If they have a financial impact, which they almost certainly will, make sure you have a plan to fund short- and long-term recommendations. Finally, as you implement the findings, make sure you have performance measurement systems in place to track how you are doing. icma Insights, a newly developed performance management and analytics system powered by SAS, is something to consider.
Understanding how your IT function is performing and making the right investments to improve it can yield significant benefits in terms of improved service delivery, improved efficiency and long-term cost savings for your local government.
Reprinted from icma Leadership Matters e-newsletter, July 29, 2014, with the permission of the author.