Laurie Van Pelt, director of management and budget of Oakland County, Mich., was named government CFO of the Year in 2010 by Crain’s Detroit Business. Phil Bertolini, Oakland County’s deputy county executive and chief information officer, co-authored and edited a book for the Government Finance Officers Association on how local governments should prioritize and fund technology projects.
A condensed and edited version of their interview with me about enterprise technology:
How do you budget for enterprise technology?
Van Pelt: We do multi-year budgeting. We have a three-year, line-item budget. We are actually working on our 2014 budget right now. We have leadership groups of similar customers meet and determine the priorities for IT. We only have a finite amount of resources and their wishes are unlimited. Phil and his team develop a strategic plan for the next two years about which projects ought to be initiated and current systems ought to be enhanced. That plan is presented to the board of commissioners so they know how everything boils down to exact hours and exact projects and how it ties into the total budget.
Then, Phil’s team has to report to the finance committee quarterly on what happened and how it compares to the master plan. IT is not just a department off to the side that’s just there to maintain our financial system on a status quo basis. We’re always looking at how we can improve things and [how] we can push transparency out to our citizens and make the cost of what we do cheaper in the long run.
How do you use enterprise technology to improve your organization?
Bertolini: We have a centralized IT shop. We only have one IT organization that satisfies all the needs of county government. That’s about 82 departments and divisions, and we provide services to the 62 communities that are in the borders of Oakland County. We also provide services to 200 public safety agencies and six counties in southeast Michigan and have several thousand e-commerce customers.
Van Pelt: A user department might start an initiative, but IT may look at it and say, “Where can we apply the same technology in other departments?” even though those other departments may not have asked for it. Videoconferencing is an example of this — law enforcement wanted it, but we are using it in other business applications.
Bertolini: We believe in enterprise technology. We are true believers. If the assessor’s office wants an address database, we are wondering why the treasurer can’t use the same system or health and human services or law enforcement. We also look at local governments as well — cities, villages and townships — and how our initiatives can help them.
Our geographic information system is a great example. There were six or seven different GIS initiatives just within the county. We stopped that and said, “Let’s all work together.” The county funded it. We invested an initial $10 million into the system. We created one central database and gave free software, hardware and training free of charge to the local municipalities to incentivize them to use it. We did a study.
If we had let all those separate GIS projects go forward, none of the systems would be able to work together and it would have cost the taxpayers three times as much. So we saved our taxpayers $20 million by working together to build one enterprise system.
How do you calculate return on investment?
Bertolini: Our return-on-investment template is online at www.oakgov.com/pmo. We actually look at a six-year cost structure. We look at everything that is tangible there — hardware, software and associated labor. We look at tangible payback and cost avoidance — everything you can possibly think of, and then we drive that all the way through to the answer.
What enterprise-technology project are you most excited about?
Bertolini: We are building one of what we believe are the first government clouds for county government. We have been providing software as a service for 35 years here, starting with the mainframe. We know how to do that. We are now ready to put up applications into a cloud environment that any government in the state of Michigan can consume with a very low footprint on their end. All they have to do is pay for consumption and not have to worry about infrastructure.
Small governments don’t use big technologies because they can’t afford the capital expense and the ongoing operating expenses. So if we can provide a different way for them to use those technologies, we can provide a different way for them to use those services.
What about security of cloud computing?
Bertolini: The majority of leaks and breaches are because people take data out of their main systems and put them on laptops and lose their laptops and get them stolen. That’s not a technology problem, it’s a process problem. You can do a lot by fixing the processes. There is nothing wrong with the cloud in many ways. People are worried about others hacking into the system. It’s not an open portal. There are firewalls and security. Is it more or less secure just because we are accessing it remotely? We are already accessing lots of data remotely over the Internet. So what’s different? The big confusion is that no one was really defined what “cloud” is.
How should CFO work with the chief information officer?
Van Pelt: It’s a symbiotic relationship. Phil needs resources, and he depends on my division to find those resources. But also, for the continuity and sustainability of our government’s long-term financial health, we depend on technology to find budgetary savings in the long run. We would not be able to downsize our staff without Phil’s staff helping us find the tools to work more efficiently with fewer staff.