Monday’s Joint Administrative Services meeting agenda held a seemingly innocuous footnote under the heading “Summer Projects.” The item was titled “Extend Financial System Access.” As surprising as it may seem in the year 2010, many Clarke County department heads do not have real-time access to budget and financial information necessary to make decisions about resource allocations. Some of the roadblocks include unsolved firewall problems, unreliable web connections, obsolete software, and continued delays in extending the school’s broadband access to Boyce Elementary. Potentially large, unspecified software upgrade costs combined with no clear plan for moving forward means that technical challenges will continue to plague county staff and administrators for the near future.
“Real-time access to budget information and the ability to move funding is very important,” Clarke County Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy told the other members of the JAS committee. “Access is especially important when we are being asked to do more with fewer resources.”
The JAS committee includes JAS Director Tom Judge, Supervisor Chairman Michael Hobert (Berryville), School Board Chairperson Robina Bouffault (White Post), Clarke County Treasurer Sharon Keeler, County Administrator David Ash, and Superintendent Murphy.
Judge told the committee that County technical staff had been preoccupied over the past several months with a series of time consuming tasks that included relocating County servers and installation of fiber optic cable. While the goal is to provide real-time access for managers to the County’s financial systems Judge conceded that the service had not been reliable.
“We’ve had difficulty getting access out to the users and keeping it available” Judge said. “We’ve just had one pitfall after the next.”
Access to financial information is considered a fundamental and necessary management tool by most organizations and corporations. Access to budget and finance systems provides important information about current account balances, purchase orders, disbursement approval and the ability to establish budget priorities by reallocating funds. Such fundamental tools are unavailable to the school system, the sheriff’s office and other essential government entities.
School officials have attributed a large portion of unspent school budgets in recent years to difficulties associated with obtaining reliable fund level reports.
During the course of the discussion it became clear that Chairman Hobert’s sense of urgency for developing a plan to address the various hardware and software challenges facing the County wasn’t initially shared by all members of the committee. While Hobert’s suggestion that the JAS dedicate its next meeting solely to understanding the scope of the County’s technical challenges was quickly embraced, various scheduling conflicts were offered as reasons for not reconvening until late in August.
Hobert quickly dispensed the scheduling obstacles saying “First of all, I’m not pleased that we can’t meet sooner. This is a priority and we need to get back together on it sooner than that.” Hobert’s persistence resulted in agreement by committee members to reconvene on June 21 at noon.
The technical challenges facing the JAS are complex and it may prove be difficult to resist the urge to chase a single solution for all of the County’s technical woes. Several commercial software vendors offer comprehensive county government software solutions accompanied by huge price tags. Informal price inquiries have produced cost estimates of several hundred thousand dollars for upgrading the County’s existing software which Judge characterized as “functional and cheap”.
“Vendors want a lot of money to translate the data in our existing system to a new software platform,” Judge cautioned. “With financial times the way they are sticking with a Yugo may be the best option. Everyone is open to looking at new solutions but it comes down to a question money and budget priorities.”
Judge told the committee that there had been previous budget requests for a substantial software upgrade with a new vendor that web client accessible. “Our goal should be a system where a common desktop web browser can access all of our systems like personnel, finance and GIS,” Judge said.
While shared access to data provides efficiencies, it also carries risks. Currently Clarke County citizen data resides in many different locations. For example, information as basic as citizen addresses is entered separately for common government uses like building permits, tax recordation and voter registration. There have been a number of instances in recent years where financial and personal data has been stolen or inadvertently lost by government and commercial institutions. Web-savvy citizens have become increasingly sensitive to the issues surrounding access to personal information. Some may even argue that centralized data collection offers both advantages and risks.
Defining Clarke County’s policies for handling citizen data and related topics may make solving the technical challenges seem simple in comparison.