For small and mid-sized communities, digital transformation depends on cloud computing

A successful cloud-based system must combine deep functionality with the last-mile capabilities that allow smaller jurisdictions to continue the march to greater efficiency and constant innovation.

Those who work for a small to mid-sized city or county may have thought digital transformation was meant for bigger metropolitan governments with deeper pockets, but nothing could be further from the truth.

In a year when municipalities have spent every day keeping their communities safe in a global health and economic crisis, software upgrades may not be at the top of the priority list. A reliable, up-to-date IT backbone, though, can be the price of entry for:

  • Delivering the services citizens and stakeholders expect.
  • Maximizing the efficiency of day-to-day operations.
  • Ensuring that employees have the tools, information and support they need to succeed.

Those basic institutional goals are even more important when pandemic-related services have become mission-critical, costs for those essential services are piling up and revenues are down.

When cities and counties have faced tough times in the past, the standard response has been to drive down back-office costs and maximize front-line services. But in most communities, those efficiencies have been tapped out. Today’s leaders must be able to manage public-sector services across different departments and disciplines, integrate an avalanche of incoming data and intelligence from multiple sources and give end users the kind of seamless, one-stop experience they found on the last e-commerce site they visited.

It’s a tough challenge, and so much depends on getting it right. But help is on the way, thanks to cloud computing technologies that were once the domain of larger city and state governments but are no longer out of reach for smaller jurisdictions.

Powering the business of government

A moment when cities and counties must wring every ounce of impact out of every dollar they spend is precisely the right time to invest in the power and efficiency of cloud computing. That means, however, setting distinct expectations for new software purchases and putting the community’s unique needs at the center of the procurement while allaying any lingering worries about whether it’s time to commit to the cloud.

Municipal IT managers are entitled to a system that is purpose-built for small and mid-sized governments. They should look for a system designed for rapid rollout, unless you’re the one municipality anywhere, ever, that wants the deployment to take any longer than it has to. (No, we thought not.)

It should span all the essential services the agency depends on, from finance and procurement to human capital management and analytics. It should have the flexibility to grow and evolve in tandem with the community’s shifting needs.

The system should break down long-standing silos between programs, services, departments and agencies, giving managers a 360-degree view of the entire operation and making it easy for citizens to find the information or services they need.

User interfaces must be flexible and intuitive, with easy mobile and tablet access to meet the needs of a changing work force and an increasingly tech-savvy citizenry.

It should incorporate the single biggest advantage of cloud deployment: By delivering routine software updates and security patches from a single, central server, it frees up in-house IT staff to work on more customized, mission-critical projects.

And any cloud-based system must offer the best data security available, along with effective backups and clear protocols for disaster response and recovery.

Delivering on the essentials

For any new software system, whether it’s cloud-based or on-premises, the only real measure of success is the way it helps users get their job done. For the following two U.S. municipalities, there’s no going back.

In 2017, the municipal utility in Greenville, S.C., switched to a cloud-based maintenance system to support management and upkeep for a vast array of mission-critical assets, including three reservoirs, 3,000 miles of pipe, 48,000 valves and two water treatment plants. In a community preparing for a population surge over the next two decades, the century-old utility needed an asset management program that would position it to meet rising demand without compromising a municipal service as basic and essential as water quality.

Greenville Water was crystal clear about what success would look like when it moved to a cloud-based management system. Key objectives included timely reporting on asset condition, lower costs, greater ability to plan services and maximize asset lifecycles, more effective staff planning and better customer services. With the system fully deployed, the utility benefits from data-informed planning and decision-making, while enjoying a much more agile, efficient approach to field operations.

“We used to create manual work orders, printing them, taking them out into the field and then coming back and putting them in a file cabinet,” said Jane Arrington, the company’s director of strategic initiatives. Now, technicians leave the plant totally equipped for the job in the field, and the maintenance department can track activities, labor hours and drive time -- all thanks to the adoption of a cloud-based asset management program.

Business continuity in a pandemic

With a population of 270,000 and the largest land footprint of any county in Maryland, Frederick County shifted its paper-based operations to a convenient, all-electronic citizen portal just three months before the pandemic made online services an essential business continuity tool.

The local government manages permits and inspections for a wide menu of licenses and oversees approvals for a broad range of external agencies, from utilities to highways and from solid waste management to soil conservation. Much of that activity would have ground to a halt earlier this year if it had had to rely on delivering field services in person.

“I don't think we ever thought we would have to consider virtual inspections,” said Gary Hessong, director of Frederick’s Department of Permits and Inspections. “But the combination of products enabled us to continue to do the work while allowing for social distancing, when people were nervous about site visits and we wanted to keep our inspectors safe.”

In contrast to nearby counties, Frederick County relied on cloud computing “to maintain business continuity in an environment where many others have just stopped or are running at a fraction of their regular capacity,” he said.

Keeping the last mile in mind

The common thread across all these expectations and examples is a big, comprehensive software installation that hasn’t lost the ability to think small. Local government is as complex and cross-disciplinary in small communities as it is in larger ones. People live in small and mid-sized cities because they want services that are more tailored, responsive and personal. Local government is where those expectations must be met.

That’s why a successful cloud-based system must combine deep functionality with the last-mile capabilities that allow smaller jurisdictions to capitalize on the digital transformation and continue the march to greater efficiency and constant innovation. It’s the best way to go when times are relatively good, and the only way to keep going when the going gets tough.

NEXT STORY: DISA takes on DOD cloud operations

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