Tech Tools for Tough Times

IT managers at government agencies have seldom opted for expensive tech tools simply for bragging rights, and, in the current economic climate, that’s not likely to change: The spending forecast for 2010 remains cautiously optimistic, focused on practical values, such as cost savings, increased efficiencies and better service to citizens.

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Federal government agencies currently spend $76 billion annually on IT—a figure expected to increase to $90 billion by 2014, according to INPUT, a market research firm that specializes in government IT spending. President Obama’s fiscal 2010 budget planning indicates that the top IT priorities and demands include cloud computing, “green” IT, health care solutions and cyber-security. (See “No Vacation for Cyber-Security Solutions” on page 32.)

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State and local government IT spending will increase from $49.6 billion in 2009 to $60.1 billion in 2014, INPUT reports. In a recent survey, cyber-security, consolidation, shared services, data management, performance measures and health information exchange were among the top priorities for state governments’ IT investment, according to the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), a Lexington, Ky.-based organization.

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One common theme among government agencies is the need to make better use of the information and resources that already exist—whether this involves technology that better analyzes databases, that helps far-flung agencies collaborate and communicate more effectively, or that launches Web 2.0-styled solutions that inspire innovation.

With this in mind, Baseline examined IT projects at the three levels of government—local, state and federal—to get a clearer sense of how investment in technologies that make better use of existing data and resources can provide positive, tangible results. The following success stories serve as examples of what government agencies—and their counterparts in the private sector—can do.

Business Analytics Makes a Difference

With 2,200 social services employees overseeing a mega-load of needy clients (including 19,000 welfare recipients, 61,000 receiving Medicaid and 28,000 citizens depending on food stamps), Northern California’s Alameda County could easily become overwhelmed by such demand. Under the gun to meet a federal mandate to place 50 percent of individuals who are in the welfare program into jobs, the county’s social services department has struggled to track which recipients were working and which were collecting benefits while staying at home. Tracking teens who would go from foster care to juvenile detention to probation also proved problematic.

”We were data-rich and information-poor,” admits Don Edwards, the assistant social services director overseeing information systems.

To make better use of all the accumulated data, in July, the department officially launched an analytics system solution from IBM. The system, a Web-enabled dashboard running on Linux, allows employees to access relevant records and data related to their clients at one time, rather than sorting through individual documents manually.

The system will red-flag a welfare-to-work offender and will make a phone call to notify the recipient that he or she must start working or lose benefits. In the past, this kind of monitoring was handled manually by the caseworkers. While the system is still relatively new, the county expects to save

$11 million annually, in part by eliminating fraud cases and saving personnel hours.

There’s a human benefit here too—providing better care for those in need.

“Take a child who’s been in foster care for most of his life,” Edwards says. “He turns 18 with a host of emotional and mental problems, gets in trouble and ends up in the probation system. We can now track his entire history of counseling, education and care, and compare it with another young man who’s gone through similar circumstances but is doing better. We can then determine if we need to apply that same treatment for the one who’s struggling.”