You Think You Have Problems?

Despite cuts to both capital and operating budgets, the CIO of Oakland County, Mich., is bullish on the prospects of keeping his IT group efficient and serving his customers effectively.

John Soat, Contributor

July 24, 2008

5 Min Read

Despite cuts to both capital and operating budgets, the CIO of Oakland County, Mich., is bullish on the prospects of keeping his IT group efficient and serving his customers effectively.Phil Bertolini never considered himself CIO material. "I began my career in 1988 as a [tax] appraiser," he says. He was put in charge of the technology connected with the tax and assessment process, and then the county's e-commerce portal. Still, when the county executive approached him in 2001 about heading up IT for county, he basically said, why me? "I told him -- I'm not a programmer, I'm not a database administrator, I'm not a network guy," he says. The county executive, L. Brooks Patterson, said he didn't want a technologist. "He told me, 'I have a whole building full of technology guys. I need someone to run the business,' " says Bertolini, who was promoted to deputy county executive and CIO in 2005.

And now business is bad. The deflated housing market, high gas prices, and the problems in the domestic auto industry are a triple whammy on Michigan's economy. Michigan, of course, isn't alone: The Wall Street Journal had a front-page story detailing the $40 billion shortfall states across the nation are experiencing.

Oakland County's budget is just over $700 million a year, and its IT budget $40 million, Bertolini says. Except that 62% of the county's budget comes from property taxes, and "when people don't have jobs, they tend not to own homes and pay taxes," he says. This is the first year assessed property values have gone down, which translates to a downward trend on 62% of the county's budget. The state funds some of the other 38%, and that will be "impacted" as well, he says.

All that points Oakland County down a "budget reduction path," says Bertolini, who is on the budget task force. "We will not raise taxes," he promises, so that means budget cuts. For IT, it means eliminating $1.5 million from the operating budget, and $4 million in capital expense.

Bertolini plans to accomplish that three ways: holding off on upgrades in both software and hardware, cutting down on costs related to customer support, and making sure every project request is fully vetted and rationalized before it has money and resources attached to it.

"We have a very strong PMO in IT," he says, aided by the use of project management application from software vendor CA called Clarity. "We build two-year master plans," he says. "Every hour of every day for a two-year period is managed in the master plan."

Oakland County has 82 departments and divisions of government, 61 villages and townships, and 250 fire and police departments, as well as "thousands of e-commerce customers," Bertolini says. Those are his customers, and he wants to make sure they get the technology they want -- and they use the technology they get. "You have to change the culture and change the mindset," he says. For example, you have to get customers to think about the business case before they request a project or application from IT, like this: "What's the benefit behind building that app? How are you benefiting by automating that process?" he says.

The IT steering committee is going through all its fixed costs, "combing them carefully," Bertolini says, and one fixed cost that rang up "very high" is customer support. Bertolini says he's trying to deal with that by putting the responsibility back on the customer. "What kind of support are you trying to get from us?" is how he characterizes his strategy. To support that God-helps-those-who-help-themselves support strategy, Bertolini says he has situated "liaisons" in all the county's departments, business unit people -- such as "a point person in the Treasurer's office" -- trained by IT, "We have thousands of hours of training we provide," he says.

Bertolini will hold back upgrading as many of the county's 4,000 PCs as he can, though some are several years old. In the past, he's turned Gateway PCs into thin clients and extended their lives that way. He uses Citrix to run desktop applications in a virtual environment, and he's right now trying to decide just exactly how many -- or how few -- servers the county needs to upgrade.

Bertolini estimates his IT group spends 83% to 85% of its operating budget on "maintenance and versioning" of its applications, and he plans to save money by cutting back on those expenses. For example, the county uses PeopleSoft for HR and financials, and he's looking closely at just which modules he will need to upgrade -- and how many he won't -- when a new version comes out. Though that's not the case with the Clarity application. "We keep that up-to-date," he says. "That's our lifeblood."

Bertolini doesn't plan to lay off any of his 160 or so IT workers, though the county has offered retirement incentives and the two IT people who took them won't be replaced. He also plans to keep his 60 contract workers. "We did not have to cut the professional services line item," he says. Still, some county officials questioned why his IT group needs to use outside talent. He says he told them, "We're hiring specific skills, not just bodies."

Bertolini points with pride to the fact that the Center For Digital Government ranked Oakland County #2 on its list for counties over 500,000, behind San Diego County. That proves that you can "accomplish good things [even] when your numbers are going down," he says. But to do that, "you have to have the entire organization's buy in."

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