Local governments, no matter where located, face the same operations dilemma – it’s difficult to find well-qualified IT staff, difficult to pay them adequately and difficult to keep them well trained. But the City of Falls Church, the Civil-War-quaint Virginia city with megalopolis clout, faced an even more severe scenario.
Its IT infrastructure was an antiquated network of homegrown systems that sparked daily challenges. CFO and general manager of Administrative Services, Shirley Hughes, says the financial staff had to muddle through with a government accounting software package that had been tweaked to death and had no written documentation of changes made or codes necessary to access certain screens. As with most entities badly in need of an IT rescue, there were multiple versions of Word, they didn’t have licenses for all the software, and nothing was consistent from one PC to another.
Hughes recalls inheriting 2,200 spreadsheets and non-integrated financial systems when she stepped into the CFO position. “It had never entered my mind that you could have an accounting system like we had then. I was trying to run an $80 million/year business and couldn’t even get financial reporting data,” she says.
Nevertheless, the city had a vision of what it could be. Its city council was willing to revolutionize the way services were provided to citizens; and city manager, Daniel McKeever, ensured it would happen. Together, they opted for outsourcing to enable a quantum leap forward in achieving their goals.
Turning the Corner
Through a Request for Proposal process, they pegged Reliable Integration Services, Inc. (Reliable) as their outsourcing partner with the resources and expertise to make the vision happen. Reliable, says Hughes, was different from others bidding on the work. “There were several ways to accomplish the city’s goals, according to Reliable; but they said, ‘let us show you the most efficient, effective way to put this together.'”
The city now uses Reliable’s Remote Managed Services for its Windows 2000 network and systems. It has been an ideal solution for the city’s critical situation. The city pays the provider a monthly fee per number of PCs and servers. The spend is slightly higher than before outsourcing; but they have new PCs, more applications, increased functionality, and improved service levels, along with the network and systems support. In addition, the city’s financial systems are connected with other city agencies and Virginia organizations. In addition, Falls Church City’s 10,000+ citizens now can access city records online.
The city’s IT “makeover” goes deeper than just a new look; it includes best-practice operations and a flexible approach to meeting the city’s growing needs.
Reliable consistently demonstrates its flexible, “partner” attitude. During the system conversion, the provider worked flexibly with the city’s software vendors to make sure the updates took place at a time convenient for all parties. One vendor’s project manager sent CFO Hughes an email stating how wonderful they thought the Reliable staff was for bending over backwards to work flexibly with the vendor in the conversion.
“There are other success stories here, there, and everywhere in our relationship with Reliable,” exclaims Hughes. When the city provided a new server for its recreation department, Reliable worked with the department’s software vendors in the implementation. When the Technology Advisory Committee met to plan the city’s Web site, Reliable made sure it had someone at the table. Reliable also worked with the telephone vendor in converting the city’s phone system onto a VPN gateway. Reliable was on the scene when the city provided new PCs and a server to its court services unit. The state of Virginia had provided other equipment at the same time, so the outsourcing provider was there to make sure the conversion would not create any problems for the state or the city.
“They do all that on their own,” comments Hughes. “They are our IT department, and they are automatically there every step of the way to make sure that everything is set up to our standards.”
They jointly resolved a difficult implementation challenge in integrating the city’s police department with other city systems, when additional security measures were required by the state police. The Falls Church City police department now has access to applications and functionality on the city’s side of the network, as well as a computerized dispatch management system that is part of the network Reliable manages. The police are among the city’s happiest users.
The provider bent over backwards to build a happy relationship with the police department, Hughes says, beginning with setting up a special training center. It had already performed some remarkable training services with other city employees, even though training was not included in the contractual obligations.
“It was a challenge, to some extent, bringing our folks up to speed for working with the state-of-the-art equipment and programs,” recalls Hughes. “There have been many, many times when the Reliable folks went way above and beyond. One of the things that I often say is: ‘I don’t do technical.’ But we had folks calling the help desk who referred to IT equipment as the ‘whatchamacallit.’ Even so, Reliable’s technical crew was able to ‘translate,’ determine the problem and how it needed to be fixed, explaining it in a manner such that the employees understood and also were not insulted. They really understand customer service,” says the city’s CFO.
With the dynamic IT “makeover,” the city now has not only totally integrated financial packages but also a world-class network that can be envied by many. When the Nimbda virus hit, nearby government systems in Virginia were down for three weeks; but the City of Falls Church had no problems. “We told Reliable we wanted as secure a network as possible,” says Hughes, “and that’s what we have.”
It’s now a connected city. CFO Hughes says they also perform accounting services for the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Academy in Ashburn (about an hour’s drive from Falls Church City). Before the city outsourced, academy employees had to drive to the City of Falls Church to obtain reports. Now they print reports online, and they handle payroll and purchase requisitions online. Every city division is now handling time-and-attendance entries online.
Hughes admits, “We’re an extremely demanding community, and Reliable is keyed in to meeting our needs. But they also know that we’ll ask: ‘how much is that going to cost us?’ We know we can trust them not to steer us wrong in how to meet our needs.”
The City of Falls Church is facing other operational issues and will soon need to look at whether to handle those in-house or outsource them. Says CFO Hughes: “I think we’ve set a good basis now for more outsourcing.”