5 steps to going from 'Flintstones to Jetsons'

CIO in Wayne County, Mich., got creative in shifting from 50-year-old system to state-of-the-art data center

How can a county with limited resources move to a paperless environment when the processes that support vital citizen services are outdated, the technology continually fails and the data center is falling apart?

Officials in Wayne County, Mich., the nation’s 13th largest county, forged a unique partnership with a data center company to build a state-of the art facility for one-quarter of what it would have cost to do it alone.

Moreover, county officials struck an innovative deal with a technology provider to help the county build an integrated platform that automates paper-driven processes and connects systems across agencies that support the delivery of essential services.

The county comprises 43 cities and townships, including the city of Detroit, and is the traditional home of the U.S. automobile industry, one of the main employers in the region. Both the county's tax base and its car manufacturing economy have been ravaged by the economic downturn.

Wayne County CIO Tahir Kazmi characterized the technology endeavor as moving from the Flintstones’ era to the Jetsons'.


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The business processes that supported the delivery of services were paper-driven and based on policies and procedures that were 50 years old. The data center needed a serious upgrade. The facility was located in the basement of a building. Every time there was flooding from heavy rains, operations were shut down.

“We were paying more money to insurance companies on equipment than the equipment was worth,” Kazmi said.

On the application side, the county’s human resource management system, based on PeopleSoft software (now a part of Oracle) and the financial management system from J.D. Edwards did not communicate. Moreover, the systems failed every day because they were not properly configured. E-mail was on an aging Novell Groupwise system.

Wayne County took five general steps toward turning around its IT systems.

1. De-duping services

The first step involved identifying the services the county delivered to the taxpayer into two groups: direct and indirect services, said Kazmi, who was first hired as director of strategic planning and operational effectiveness before moving to his stint as CIO.

Direct services were those the county is mandated to deliver to taxpayers, such as family, health, social and legal services. Indirect services are operations that support delivery of those mandates. In dividing the groups, redundant services were eliminated, budgets were scrutinized and all 13 executive departments were asked to develop business plans.

2. Public-private partnership

The next step involved upgrading the technology infrastructure. Building two data centers – a primary and a secondary facility for backup – along with cabling and installing fiber -- would have cost $40 million.

At this point, Kazmi told Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano that the county had to take some innovative steps to build the facility. Ficano and his deputy, Azzam Elder, are visionaries who gave Kazmi the financial, organizational, staffing and political support required to get the job done, he said.

The county entered into a public/private partnership with Secure –24, a data center operations and managed hosting services company, which was about to leave the state of Michigan because of lack of business. Secure-24 has data centers in Southfield, Mich., and Phoenix.

Tax and land purchase incentives enabled the company to build a state-of-the art facility for the county for $10 million. The county negotiated an agreement in which its IT department leases space in Secure-24’s data centers and, in turn, the county brings in businesses to the data center. For instance, Chrysler Financials has just moved into the facility.

“We are sharing the cost of the space [with Secure-24]. I have 5,000 square feet and I pay for the utilities,” Kazmi said, adding that the company has given Wayne County space in its multiple facilities for business continuity operations.

3. Open source

On the application side, Kazmi started to look for a platform that would give the IT team leverage for rapid development. The platform had to accommodate huge data processing loads that included unstructured data such as images, maps and deeds; and structured data such as information about citizens that can be stored in databases.

This posed a problem because he couldn’t find a platform that married the two types of data. Usually, organizations use software from Microsoft, Oracle and SAP that handle only structured data.

Instead, Kazmi decided to develop something on his own. The county picked OpenText’s enterprise content management suite as a foundational platform. Once again, Kazmi entered into negotiations to present his vision, this time to OpenText’s top leadership. Open Text didn’t give Kazmi money to build anything, but it gave him support, a major discount on the ECM suite and a commitment to resolve any issues that came up during development free of charge to the county. The stipulation was that OpenText could take to market any solution Kazmi developed.

4. Workflow simplification

Kazmi’s team next developed Wayne County Link, a portal built on OpenText’s Vignette portal technology. At the back end, the portal links into business intelligence, document management, enterprise content management and records management systems.

The front end intakes data, such as a request for a gun permit, marriage license, building permit or complaint about a pothole. The information is captured and then an internal business process takes over. That might involve a person sending a birth certificate or other documentation as an attachment. The documents and the correspondence between the requestor and processor are all pulled together.

Each request is like a separate case, Kazmi said.

Kazmi team used OpenText’s Transactional Content Processing workflow technology to automate these processes. The county has also developed links between the human resource and financial management systems. Now, if a person gets married and changes a last name, the change is automatically reflected in both systems. Before, someone would have to manually input those changes into the financial system.

"Some of products in the ECM suite were good; some were mediocre," Kazmi said. "If anything was mediocre, OpenText helped improve it, anything that was good we used it." It wasn’t as easy as it might sound, Kazmi said. However, he added, “What we have now is a very unique product that doesn’t exist anywhere.”

“It addresses business processes at all levels of government,” he said.

5. Standardization

The county has standardized its processes, so if another county or city needs to use Wayne County’s implementation, it would only have to configure the workflow capabilities to fit its specific requirements. But the intake, data retention and processing are all the same, Kazmi said.

So far, six departments are using the Wayne County Link that automates the county’s processes. Seven departments are left and then the county will open up the link to constituents.“We are rolling this out step by step,” Kazmi said.

The workforce has to be trained and adapt to the new technology. However, all 13 departments have been converting historical documents to an electronic format, and those documents are being stored in a central data warehouse. This conversion is saving hundreds of thousands of dollars the county was spending on storing paper.

But the real return on investment is not just how much money is being saved, Kazmi said. Return on investment should be measured by whether the county can still deliver services when it doesn’t have appropriate funding.

“There are services that are mandated on us, but because people are moving out of the county there is no more tax revenue coming in,” or not enough to pay for services. “But we still have to deliver service,” he said.

Reader Comments

Mon, Mar 21, 2011

“What we have now is a very unique product that doesn’t exist anywhere.”

This is the exact kind of thinking that got government where it is today. Supporting many systems that are unique and not sustainable or upgradeable. What the devil are you thinking - build more custom code? Build a new IT empire? How about moving government to more standardized COTS solutions by working with the vendors and changing your business processes to be more standardized across governemnt.

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