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Cyber Sarasota

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  • | 6:00 p.m. November 28, 2003
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Cyber Sarasota

Bob Hanson brings an entrepreneurial approach to Sarasota County's information technology department. And taxpayers could benefit.

By Kendall Jones

Senior Editor

Bob Hanson entered the public sector by becoming Sarasota County's chief information officer just five years ago. In doing so, he took about a 67% cut in pay.

Nevertheless, Hanson, 43, says the move paid off by vastly improving his lifestyle. Previously, he was an in-demand consultant who traveled the world for companies like Dow Chemicals and Andersen Consulting setting up SAP computer systems. He spent extended time in Canada, Mexico and Germany. But 20 years of near-constant travel wore on him. He had a failed marriage and two daughters he had spent little time helping raise.

In the beginning of 1999, he quit that life and soon thereafter joined Sarasota County's IT department in March of that year. It was a great move for Hanson, who has settled down in one location, got married this past summer, and spends more time with his daughters and stepchildren.

But as well as it worked for Hanson, it was a good move for Sarasota County. Hanson's technology experience combined with his business background helped change the way the county uses its technology services. Sarasota especially benefits from Hanson's brainchild, GovSpace, a package of technology products and services that have made the county, its staff and its budget process streamlined and efficient.

Maybe more importantly, GovSpace is marketable for use by other entities - some are already on board as test cases. By selling to other entities the right to use and share Sarasota County's system and facilities, the county brings down its costs of running the system. As more public entities join GovSpace, which is beginning to happen now, the costs will drop further, to the point where the county will break even - or even make money - off its own system.

Indeed, the genius of GovSpace is that the county can lower its tax burden and maybe make money off a system it needs, pays for and built.

One of the problems Hanson saw when he joined the county was a waste of resources and time when it came to the budget process. County commissioners and administration knew about the waste and they wanted to find a solution. Hanson and his team developed a performance-based budget management package to solve the problem.

"This system is really cool," says Hanson. "It's a whole new view, focusing on management performance and tying performance to investments. Counties usually budget per organization; public works gets X million (of dollars) per year to spend, for example. But now, we have a scorecard measure. We break everything in the county down to the product or service and value it, per unit, per hour, and budget accordingly. We get people to really think about what their product or service is and how it should be valued.

"It's more of a private sector mentality, measuring performance on more than financial factors. The scorecard measure has four quadrants: the customer perspective (how well we are satisfying their needs), the financial perspective, the process perspective (how well we are developing the product) and the learning and growth perspective (the human element, the development of the staff)."

The performance software costs the county about $300,000 to $350,000 annually to operate and update. However, as the direct result of the development and implementation of this system, the county's entire budgeting process became more efficient. Every department now uses the same format and process, and a great deal of bureaucracy is omitted because every department does not have to maintain its own full financial planning staff. Hanson brought in outside contractors where it was more cost efficient than doing work in-house.

Though many county employees involved in the process feared they would lose their jobs, none did. The affected staff was reduced from about 35 employees to about 20, about 15 other employees were promoted into more strategic positions. Instead of losing their jobs, they ended up with better jobs.

Hanson has already greatly enhanced the county's Web site with ever-increasing functions and capabilities. Earlier this year, Sarasota County was named the sixth best county in the nation, in its population category, in using technology to deliver quality services to its customers and citizens. Hanson says both the performance-based budget application and the Web site, along with all other technology and communications services he oversees, are constantly updated with changes and improvements to make sure the citizens are always best served.

But while Hanson and county leaders appreciated the tremendous impact these technological advancements had on Sarasota, they knew there was more potential. After seeing how much it cost to set up Sarasota's system, and seeing how much more capacity it could handle, Hanson knew many counties could share those resources to reduce costs.

"Most government IT departments complain about not having enough resources, but we are not sharing," says Hanson. "We are all spending our own resources separately, even though we are all reporting on the same things. If we pooled our resources together, our pooled investment could be bigger and better than the private sector's."

Thus, the idea of GovSpace, the sharing of governmentally-owned technology and resources, was born. Hanson sincerely insists that the motive of GovSpace is to improve government efficiencies for all participating entities. But there is a financial benefit as well.

GovSpace really became a reality when the county got a great deal on the purchase of a world-class data center about a year ago after Arthur Andersen went under and had to abandon it. Dale Ott, owner of DOS Computers, the county's outside computer maintenance firm, says the old Andersen data center probably appraises for at least $45 million, but the county got it for only about $3 million.

Right now, the county is using about half of the data center's capacity, giving GovSpace tremendous potential. GovSpace has four separate elements: disaster recovery, remote data backups, application hosting services and application service provider services.

For the disaster recovery element, Hanson is working on a regional collaboration to enable rolling recovery of emergency services. Every public entity has a number of critical services that would need to operate in event of a disaster - 911 and emergency services, the ability to clear streets and manage traffic, communication services, etc. Currently, Sarasota County rolls all of its emergency services data into the old Andersen data center daily; the center is staffed every minute of every day. If a disaster took out the primary system, the county would quickly be able to restore those services through this disaster recovery capability.

Hanson is collaborating with counties from Hillsborough to Collier to enable rolling disaster recovery throughout the region. Then, if a disaster hits one county, its emergency services could be recovered quickly from the data it has sent to facilities throughout the region. Since Sarasota's data center, with its full staff, already serves this purpose for Sarasota, there would be minimal additional county cost to provide the service for others. Indeed, if other counties paid Sarasota to cover their disaster recovery needs as well, those payments would only go to reduce Sarasota's existing expenses, thereby reducing the county's tax burden.

On the remote data backup element, the county has the space to hold backup data for other entities. Hanson says the data center has robotic tape equipment that can handle 4,000 tapes robotically. Again, the system is already in place and the county already uses it for its own purposes, so the cost to add new users to the system would be far outweighed by the overall cost reduction possible in doing so.

Remote data backup is already an automatic part of some of the county's Web hosting services. Along with hosting and maintaining its own site, county staff host and manage the sites of a few other entities, including several not-for-profits; the county provides this service for some not-for-profits in lieu of monetary grants.

Hanson envisions other counties being able to purchase from Sarasota its effective Web site shell and plug into that shell its own specific information and links. Sarasota County could then host and manage the site. The other counties would spend a fraction of the cost of developing a new Web site from scratch, and Sarasota would receive revenues from managing a site just like the one it manages for itself anyway - again, the long-term revenue benefits would outweigh the short-term incremental cost to the county, while helping another county as well.

But the biggest revenue potential comes from the performance budget management system. About one year ago, Leon County was brought online as a pilot customer to share the system, via the Internet and plugging their own numbers and information into the program, with Sarasota. They pay about $15,000 per year to use the program Sarasota developed, a tiny fraction of what it would cost to develop its own separate program. Hanson says the pilot was successful.

More recently, Monroe County was brought in, paying about $20,000 annually. Hanson says they were testing the sharing concept. "We have been walking slower than the market wants us to," admits Hanson. "We had to figure out how much it would cost to add a customer, which turned out to be relatively inexpensive. It was a one-time expense to the county of about $12,000, between labor and work, because we included training on our system as well as data work. Now, we can roll faster, and it's starting now."

On the day the Review interviewed Hanson, one Florida city was simultaneously reviewing the system, deciding whether to join in the sharing. Another was expected for a walk-through the following day.

"We currently have the capacity to share with 10 to 15 more public entities," says Hanson. "At some point, we will add more capacity, which will mean a small additional cost then, but with a much bigger payoff because then we will add more sharing customers. Our intent is to price it by the number of users the sharing public entity will have accessing the system; the more budget people they have accessing it, the higher their price. We will reach a break-even point on the system pretty soon."

Hanson sees GovSpace, and the notion of multiple counties sharing Sarasota's performance-based budget management system, as a win-win for both sides. So then, why would any public entity choose not to sign on?

The answer may be as simple as pride, says Ott: "Bob says to other public entities, 'Hey, this is already paid for, so I will just give to you at cost.' It benefits everyone. But some may say no because of low-level decision-maker job security. Other counties' staffs may fear that it puts their jobs at risk. Or maybe they feel they are unique, or better, that they can do it themselves and they have the secret sauce. But if the high-level decision makers crunch the numbers, they'll see it makes a lot of sense. This has tremendous potential."

And this isn't a secret sauce Hanson wants to hoard. Asked whether he fears other entities will try to do the same thing, Hanson replies, "I hope they do. I hope other counties come up with other management solutions. Maybe one will come up with a great traffic management solution, and another a great recruiting program. We can contract back with them and we can all share. We just have to learn to trust each other."


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