Clarke County government is in for big changes and costs according to a consultant hired to look at the county’s software systems. The consultant told county leaders that not only will the price tag to modernize Clarke County’s data systems be large, but also said that little can be done to avoid making the costly changes.
David Melbye, Research & Consulting Senior Manager for the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA), delivered the news to county and school leaders at Monday’s Joint Administrative Services meeting. Melbye said that Clarke County’s software and hardware systems are so antiquated that working to improve the existing infrastructures is not a viable option.
“If good governance is your goal then the existing status quo in Clarke County can’t scale to meet that vision” Melbye said. “You really can’t get there from here”
Last December Clarke County asked the Chicago-based GFOA to assess the county’s business processes and supporting technology. The assessment was intended to address issues and perceived deficiencies in software applications that support county operations. Over the years, county and school staff members have increasingly expressed frustration with the lack of integration across multiple data systems and desktop tools. The result has been process inefficiencies, data errors, excessive manual efforts to manage information, and ultimately, the inability to provide desired service levels to employees, vendors, students and citizens.
Melbye’s report was based on onsite meetings with employees, managers and officials from both county government and schools to gain a detailed understanding of the challenges presented by hardware and software systems that, in many cases, is not compatible or easily integrated.
“GFOA received a high degree of cooperation in all of our meetings in Clarke County” Melbye said. “That cooperation speaks volumes about the interest level that employees have in improving the county’s operational issues.”
Melbye went on to paint a bleak picture of Clarke County’s information technology infrastructure by describing non-integrated hardware and software systems, duplicative data entry efforts, lack of industry best practices an data that does not move across the county’s various systems.
“The result is that you have a many manual processes that take a lot of time” Melbye said. “The question becomes â€˜What is the impact of these manual processes and what do you plan to do about it?’”
Melbye said that based on his observations it would not be fair to broad-brush the issues that he observed during his multi-week long study of Clarke County into a single category.
“County-wide you have people wrestling with many different challenges” Melbye said.
By example, Melbye told the JAS committee that the county’s human resources functions were being performed mainly on paper and lacked automation support. Purchasing, on the other hand, has a software system but that its processes are “iffy”. Melbye said that while Clarke County’s finance department has good processes, most of the work has to be stored on individual computer desktops because of the lack of communication between software applications.
Melbye presented four options for consideration by the JAS; stick with the current information technology solution “as-is” – invest more money into current systems – purchase a series of individual “best-of-breed “ solutions for each department – or purchase a single integrated software solution that addresses all of the county’s needs under a single umbrella-solution called enterprise resource planning.
Melbye’s recommendation is that Clarke County purchase a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Melbye estimated that the cost of an ERP system will be between $500K and $1.5M dollars.
“ERP systems aren’t cheap” Melbye said. “However the costs would be spread over a one to three year implementation period. You certainly don’t need to come up with $1.5M today.”
Melbye also recommended that in order to successfully implement an ERP system, Clarke County and Clarke County Public Schools’s information technology staff should be combined and managed as a central resource by the Joint Administrative Services department.
“I think that you’re looking at hiring two additional IT staff” Melbye said. “Right now the county and school IT staff are barely keeping their heads above water. It’s probably not a very fun environment for them to constantly be in maintenance mode.”
Melbye said that a switch to JAS management of IT resources will provide the ability to allocate services more efficiently between both the county and school system.
“JAS oversight of resource allocation is in the best interest of both bodies” Melbye said.
While GFOA’s cost estimate for improving Clarke County’s operational systems is huge by local standards, at least one member of the JAS committee asked whether the estimate might actually be too low.
“Ultimately this group has to go back to the governing bodies with a vision that we can go forward with” said Clarke County Board of Supervisor Chairman Michael Hobert (Berryville). “In order to do that we need budget clarity but that budget clarity isn’t here for me in this report.”
Hobert fired a number of specific questions at Melbye related to the various options and costs for implementing a county-wide ERP system including “cloud-computing”, “software-as-a-service” and the likelihood of additional hiring requirements in departments other than IT.
Melbye told Hobert that much of the final implementation cost depended on the business model that the county chooses to implement.
“A solution where the software is hosted on a vendor’s remote computer would cost $20 – $60 per person, per month. But in a hosted environment you have no ability to modify the software to meet your local needs” Melbye said. “To use a hosted option you have to be willing to let go of things that the software currently doesn’t do. That’s where a hosted solution usually falls short.”
Melbye told Hobert that GFAO has found that while the initial outlay for a hosted solution is usually lower than an out-right software purchase, the long term costs of a hosted ERP system are significantly more expensive than purchasing the software.
Despite Melbye’s response Hobert still wasn’t satisfied that a $1.5M price tag to implement the proposed ERP solution was realistic.
“I still am not satisfied that all of the costs are on the table” Hobert said. “I’m still not certain about the staff costs while the implementation process is in progress, I don’t think that we have a clear understanding of the staffing and software licensing costs going forward and this includes nothing about the cost of hardware.”
GFOA’s submission of a final report is expected sometime in April.