Staunton May Guide Clarke with ERP Deliberations

Clarke County’s Joint Administrative Services Board today spent the majority of a two and a half hour session giving further consideration to the county’s possible acquisition of an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system and to the criteria that will guide the final decision of how best to solve Clarke County’s data processing and information management challenges. The JAS Board appears to have solved an important piece of the review process by identifying a Virginia locality similar to Clarke County that has recently implemented its own ERP system and is willing to share it experience with Clarke County officials.

After looking into nine communities, JAS director Tom Judge says that the city of Staunton appears to be a close fit to the requirements being contemplated for Clarke.

“I spoke to several places but I really wasn’t satisfied until I found Staunton” Judge said.

Judge said that the ultimate goal in reviewing Staunton’s ERP implementation is to determine whether an ERP system will work for a small government like Clarke’s and whether the benefits outweigh the complexity and cost associated with the implementation.

Based on initial discussions with city officials there, Judge said that Staunton’s implementation is a close fit to Clarke County’s requirements and could provide helpful guidance as Clarke seeks to chart its own course.

“Staunton is a little larger than Clarke at about 23,000 citizens” Judge said, “however they have integrated both their city and schools as we have discussed here. They’re also using a web interface rather than a client-server interface which Gordon [Russell] thinks is important due to lower maintenance costs. Staunton’s system also uses open standards and a relational database.”

Judge told the other members of the Board, Supervisor Chairman Mike Hobert (Berryville), school board member and JAS chairperson Emily Rhodes (Buckmarsh), Treasurer Sharon Keeler, Clarke County administrator David Ash, and school superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy, that he suspects that government interest in ERP across Virginia has recently increased as other jurisdictions seek to offset revenue losses through efficiency improvements promised by ERP solutions.

Judge pointed out that Loudoun County is in the final stages of reviewing responses to a request for proposal for an ERP system issues earlier this year and that Frederick County is also considering an ERP approach. Prince George’s County, Virginia recently awarded a contract for implementation of an ERP system.

“Frederick County is just an example of another neighbor going in a similar direction” Judge said. “I think that many places are reacting to reduced funding with this kind of investment.”

However, given the complexity involved with implementation, the actual dollar cost of an ERP purchase may prove to be its least expensive part and that concern likely lies behind the county’s methodical review. Judge pointed out, as have others on the JAS Board, that ERP systems are complex and often take many years to implement.

“Staunton purchased their ERP system in 2003” Judge said. “Based on their vision I think that they are well satisfied. We’ve seen the cost estimated from Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) for Clarke County’s ERP, this will help us confirm the estimate with an actual community that’s done it.”

GFOA, a consulting firm with expertise in state government business solutions, has estimated that a Clarke County ERP system could cost more than a million dollars. GFOA’s recommendations also pointed out that many of Clarke County’s business processes are manual and would benefit from automation solutions. However, GFOA also outlined, but did not recommend, other solutions to an ERP approach.

While ERP is only one of several options being considered by Clarke, review and discussion with Staunton’s government officials and software implementation team could provide added confidence about the advisability of implementing an ERP implementation, or not.

“Based on their vision I think that Staunton is well satisfied” Judge said.

While Judge works to schedule a review meeting between Clarke County and Staunton officials, a task made more difficult by summer leave schedules, government and school officials plan to work together to standardize business practices as a way of reducing paperwork and duplicative manpower tasks.

“We need to address business practices in both the schools and government where tasks coincide” said Supervisor Hobert. “We also need to agree on standard practices that both groups can adopt and also decide which practices need to remain different.”

One area that will receive immediate attention is annual and sick leave tracking. Leave tracking, a manual process for county government but an automated process for the school division, provides an opportunity for both groups to agree on data standards. Agreement on standards now could eliminate or reduce cost and need for separate data systems in the future. Other potential areas of collaboration include human resources and job applicant tracking.

“The question is do we adapt our business processes to match a software system or do we adapt the software system to match our processes” Judge asked.

Depending on scheduling availability, both with Clarke County and Staunton officials, the JAS Board along with Supervisor John Staelin (Millwood) and Clarke County information technology director Gordon Russell hope to visit Staunton for an ERP review in either late June or August.