Virginia county’s IT approach helps protect budget

Computerworld (US)

Many state and local government IT departments face massive cutbacks because of the weak economy and declining tax revenue. But in Fairfax County, Va., US$9 million is being set aside to continue a series of IT modernization projects in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

That’s a 35 percent decrease from the amount earmarked for such projects two years ago, and the county’s spending on IT operations has dropped by 10 percent as part of a belt-tightening by all departments. Nonetheless, top technology executives here said they were able to preserve the modernization budget line thanks in large part to the way the county manages its IT resources.

Fairfax County encourages both cooperation and competition among agencies that are in pursuit of IT project dollars. On the cooperation side, IT director Wanda Gibson and IT project portfolio manager David Bartee said they and other county executives look for common threads among project requests.

For instance, the Fairfax Department of Public Works and Environmental Services in the spring of 2002 proposed that a 25-year-old mainframe-based inspection-tracking system used to monitor permits for buildings, contractors, electricians and plumbers be replaced by a new one built around a Sun Solaris server and an Oracle database.

After receiving the request, a seven-member steering committee that makes strategic IT spending decisions saw an opportunity to expand the new system to agencies such as fire and rescue, planning and zoning, and health services.

“Having a single repository for project requests helps us to synchronize with other agencies on similar projects,” said Stephen Garnier, who works in the county’s Office of Building Code Services and is project manager for the inspection-tracking system. The first phase of the project, the rollout of a complaints management module, is due to be completed in late summer.

Garnier added, though, that the presence of the IT steering committee also forces agencies competing for funding to be “even more articulate” in communicating the expected benefits of projects.

Like many organizations, Fairfax County had highly decentralized IT spending and decision-making until the mid-1990s. The county’s 55 agencies budgeted for and ran their own systems, a process that led county officials to recognize “that we needed to pull IT together,” Gibson said.

In addition to creating the internal steering committee, in 1995 the county set up an IT advisory committee that includes private-sector executives and other external members.

That same year, Fairfax County merged its IT infrastructure and telecommunications groups into a centralized organization and created separate positions for a CIO and a director of IT. It also added an IT portfolio management position, the one now held by Bartee, years before many companies even considered taking that approach to evaluating their spending.

Fairfax County has “one of the best-run public-sector IT departments in the country,” said David Banks, a Gartner Inc. analyst. “They have extremely sharp people, all the way from the data center on up to the top ranks.”