Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
By going in on IT together, rural places can get business basics for less.
The Gaines County, Texas, Web site is not going to win design prizes anytime soon. The home page features a grainy photo of the county courthouse. The most current news item posted is from June--that is, June of 2008. And most of the links to county departments and offices lead to little more than an address, a phone number and hours of operation.
Click on the Web site for San Patricio County, Texas, and it looks pretty much the same--except the photo is of a different courthouse and the latest news is from 2005. Burleson County's site is a knock-off, too. So is Jackson County's, although Jackson has added a flickering flame icon next to news about the lifting of a local burn ban.
The Web sites look pretty much alike because they all came from the same template, provided by an arm of the Texas Association of Counties. The outfit, called the County Information Resources Agency, or CIRA, helps counties with other tech besides Web sites. CIRA also provides financial management software, human resources software and e-mail services to counties that otherwise might not be able to afford it. "We're coming together as a group to save money," says Gayle Latham, CIRA's director.
Sharing technology in this way is not the domain of big jurisdictions with large tech budgets and huge IT staffs. But for small, rural counties--and in Texas, that is the majority of them--pooling resources has been critical to getting at least some presence online. Small counties are lucky if they have one or two IT employees. "It's nothing fancy," Judge Tom Keys, the executive of Gaines County, says about the Web site for his county of 20,000 people. "But it allows us to meet the requirements placed on us by state law."
Texas isn't the only state where small counties are banding together on IT services. In Pennsylvania, the county commissioners association provides Web hosting and support for more than a dozen counties. In North Carolina, counties share a property tax system that Wake County developed. And in North Dakota, a subsidiary of the state association of counties offers tech support for counties to set up e-mail systems and servers.
Texas' CIRA began in 2001. It was based on the recommendation of a Texas Association of Counties task force that spent a year looking at the difficulties that many counties were facing in implementing even some basic business technology. The first Web sites hit the small screen the following year. Since then, more than 170 of the 254 counties in Texas have turned to CIRA for Web site creation or enhancement. It's not hard to see why: CIRA will develop and host a county's Web site for free if county employees update it. CIRA charges $350 per year if it does the updating and posting for a county.
"CIRA set it up such that someone with just a little experience, enough to not be scared to turn on the computer, can be trained," says Mike Sutherland, county judge in Burleson County, population 20,000.
E-mail has been another popular CIRA service. More than 100 counties use it. The experience of San Patricio County, population 70,000, is typical. When county officials first began sending e-mail, they used the free Web-based services put out by Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft. This meant that e-mails sent for government business might go out under a Hotmail address--and include advertisements. Now, department heads have switched over to CIRA's more business-like e-mail, with addresses that include the county domain name. It's also free and secure. "Rather than everyone having what looks like unofficial and unprofessional accounts with free services," says Raul Delgado, the county's information services manager, "we created our own Web domain name and it looks official."
CIRA's offerings continue to grow. The newest project is for software that can help county courts manage caseloads. Fifty counties have committed to help fund the effort. The hope is that the system will automate how counties collect, maintain and share justice data, without requiring that county after county spend precious dollars developing expensive in-house systems on their own.
The initial phase is scheduled to be finished in June. Then, CIRA will determine whether it is financially feasible to get vendors to build the software. If it isn't, counties may still opt to go it alone, but they'll have the benefit of having worked out common standards with their peers.
Sutherland likes this approach. Burleson County has been trying on its own to develop court software but it hasn't gone so well. Sutherland would prefer to turn the project over to a group that could spend the time to work on it with initial funding pooled from dozens of counties. "It's been a huge expense and a huge headache for us, dealing with various software companies," Sutherland says. "It's a never-ending drain."
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