With tight budgets and low revenue projections as continuing components in Clarke County’s foreseeable future, county officials continue to look for ways to improve government efficiency and performance through new technologies. One large price-tag solution that has received significant attention over the past year is the possible procurement of an enterprise resource planning software system (ERP) that could help the county standardize its business practices, improve service to citizens, and reduce the costs associated with maintaining software packages that offer overlapping functionality.
But the positive aspect of ERP is offset, to some degree, by the risks associated with implementing new business procedures coupled with a multi-year software implementation project affecting multiple agencies across the county.
In September, Clarke County’s Joint Administrative Services Board, a committee aimed at providing common solutions to challenges facing both the Clarke County government and the Clarke County Public Schools, agreed to request $650K from the Clarke County Board of Supervisors for an ERP solution.
The budget request envisions a fifty-fifty cost split between the school division and the Supervisors with project oversight from the Joint Administrative Services Board.
The proposed budget request has yet to be considered by the Board of Supervisors.
As part of the implementation planning for the potential ERP project, the Joint Administrative Services Board is already beginning to discuss scope and implementation strategies should the Supervisors give the project a green light.
At Tuesday’s Joint Administrative Services Board committee meeting, school and county government administrators, several constitutional officers and both school and county Information Technology directors met to consider the practical challenges associated with a multi-year ERP software implementation project.
At the meeting, the group agreed that establishing the proper scope for the project will be an important consideration. JAS director Tom Judge also pointed out that designing an inter-agency approach for the project will provide many benefits to the county including economies of scale concerning hardware and software, standardizing best practices across county operations, standardized security practices for protecting public data and allowing data to be used across government wherever possible.
However, defining the proper scope and determining where processes can be standardized carries challenges, especially instances where sharing data and information are restricted by law.
“Our office is becoming more and more technology driven and the processes that we are discussing here have a lot to do with the way we do business,” said Clarke County Sheriff Tony Roper who attended the meeting. “I’m excited about a comprehensive technology approach because it is critical in terms of budget. But in terms of sharing information between agencies, there are some things that we can share and some information that we can’t by law.”
Clarke County Public Schools have similar restrictions when it comes to protecting student data.
Another potential impediment is that constitutional officers – like the county treasurer, commissioner of revenue, and sheriff – are only accountable to the electorate and have the discretion to pursue independent software and hardware approaches that they believe will deliver the highest level of value to their constituents.
“Our governmental system allows each constitutional officer to choose their own path,” remarked JAS director Judge. “Even though that makes it harder to come up with common solutions that work for everyone it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to do it.”
Clarke County Supervisors Chairman Michael Hobert (Berryville, has been a driving force behind looking for ways to improve county operating efficiencies, probed for areas of overlap between agencies and departments that the county might be able to address through standard approaches facilitated by a future-ERP solution.
“We need to explore areas of agreement, like personnel policy, where we have similar approaches,” Hobert said. “Encouraging a merger of policies, like the way that we track and administer leave time, could offer potential efficiencies and savings.”
One potential overlap area was cited by Clarke County School Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy. Each year the school division’s annual teacher hiring requires processing 600 – 900 teacher resumes prior to the beginning of each school year. The school division, like other Clarke County agencies, is faced with the decision of whether an ERP solution could address the requirement or whether to purchase an independent software solution that can be quickly implemented.
The school division is not alone in the challenge of whether to buy now or later.
“Since we’ve been talking about ERP systems there have probably been five to six software packages that an ERP system could have handled,” Judge remarked.
“People tend to be totally focused on what a software package can do for their department,” Judge said “because it’s difficult to see the big picture of what’s best for the county. It’s hard for individual departments to get their arms around the bigger issue. There are forces that continually drive these purchasing decisions down to the agency level.”
The Joint Administrative Services Board forwarded its ERP request to the Board of Supervisors for inclusion in the FY2013 capital budget.