Walworth County Government Today: County's information technology strategy constantly evolves
December's Walworth County Board meeting featured a presentation of the evolution and future of information technology in county government. There were a number of reasons why I encouraged our information technology director, John Orr, to make the presentation. First, IT projects are never cheap. While staff obtains approval from the board for individual projects that we pursue each year, we sometimes take for granted that supervisors are aware of the larger picture. Even understanding the degree to which our organization relies on IT systems can help supervisors put these projects into perspective. Spending money on disaster recovery, for example, really only makes sense if board members understand the degree to which our organization depends upon electronic data.
Today, we rely on computer programs for everything, from paying our vendors and employees to managing medical records and solving crimes. Eleven million pages of records are stored on county computer servers and that total grows each day. A second reason to bring supervisors up to speed is that much of the IT structure we have in place today predates the tenure of most of the members of our board. Investing in the infrastructure that supports the many computer applications that we now use was controversial in its day. Back then, board members took a leap of faith to invest millions of dollars in a graphic information system and fiber optic network. As technology continues to evolve, and we ask our board to invest thousands more in new systems, this history is vital in helping them see the big picture.
Orr started the presentation with a brief history of information technology in county government. A picture of one of the county's first computers, a 25-foot-long IBM System 38 server, brought a few smiles to the room. Before the development of personal computers, data processing, as it was then called, was a highly centralized function. Information was entered into the system during the day and programs ran at night. Reports were, likewise, printed centrally and delivered to departments the next day. Software that ran on the System 38 and its predecessor, the AS 400, were written by county-employed programmers.
While those programs were simple by today's standards, Walworth County was ahead of many of its peers in terms of the number of functions that were automated. This turned out to be both a blessing and a curse over time. The good news was that for many years our county enjoyed the efficiency that these programs provided. When the state began providing computing solutions for counties through programs like the Circuit Court Access Program, however, many of our users already were proficient with our own homegrown programs and felt that we had a better product. Even our own accounting programs, which were very unforgiving if a space or hyphen were omitted, had their following. “Power users,” on our general ledger system, who could type hundreds of lengthy account numbers from memory, questioned the need to shift to software that featured a more user-friendly interface and the ability to use a mouse. They were at ease keeping our books balanced on flickering monochrome green screen monitors. The problem was that the information was far less accessible to others in the organization that could benefit from seeing it.
One of the most significant IT changes, which occurred during the decade of the 2000s, was our migration from computer programs that we wrote ourselves to “enterprise solutions.” An enterprise solution is IT-speak for purchasing already-written programs. It is similar to buying Microsoft Office at Best Buy and installing it on your computer, rather than writing the computer code yourself to type a letter. Enterprise solutions can be modified, within reason, to fit the way the purchaser does business, but in the end, often requires the purchaser to modify its processes to fit the software. The move did not come without growing pains. For starters, it changed the structure of our IT department. Rather than hiring programmers who could write code, the focus shifted to personnel who could analyze a business process and serve as the liaison between a software vendor and employees delivering services to the public.
There were, and still are, a number of advantages to purchasing enterprise solutions. As a small organization, it is difficult to hire and train the number of IT professionals that we would need to keep software running on the constantly proliferating devices that either we or the public are using. Scanners, bar code scanners, signature pads and smartphones are just a few examples of the type of hardware with which programs need to integrate. About the time that we would train a worker in the latest computer language, that language would change or the worker would leave for a higher paying job. Enterprise software constantly is updated, permitting us to install the most recent version.
Purchasing software off the shelf does not come without a downside; one of the biggest is “razor and razor blade” theory of marketing. Once we purchase a software product, transfer our data to it and train our staff on it, there is typically an ongoing charge to continue to use it. Containing those costs is the job of our IT staff. They constantly analyze contracts to get the best pricing. Eliminating unneeded features, negotiating multiyear deals and finding out what other customers, particularly new ones, are paying are all strategies that can be used to negotiate lower annual charges.
If you are interested in watching the presentation yourself, you can view it with some other technology that we invested in a few years ago. An archived video of our Dec. 8 board meeting is available for viewing at www.co.walworth.wi.us.
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at 262-741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.