The Technology Backbone That Powers Local Government
Local government agencies live on shoestring budgets; which force departments to compete for available funding. We have to provide public safety, permits, and a variety of other services—all with minimum tax dollars. Providing police, fire protection, roadway improvements/maintenance, building and permitting and general governance all must be scaled back because of the limited tax dollars. Information Technology is an easy target for budget reductions, especially research and development.
As a taxpayer, I understand the need for a lean government. Lean structures keep my tax rates low while allowing prioritization of critical services. As an IT professional, however, I also understand the long-term implications of operating without a well-coordinated technology structure. As technology changes, communities without regular IT investments can quickly become outdated. Eventually, residents will expect services and technology that simply cannot fit into the aging government infrastructure.
I’ve seen many technologies come and go over the years in both the public and private sectors, and how both categories adapt to change. For the last decade, I have served the Village of Oswego in various IT capacities. I was first hired to provide Geographic Information Systems for the entire Village. There was no IT department; the high-level services were all carried out by a consultant that came on site once a week.
At the time, this sparse IT methodology was enough to keep the Village functioning. We had about 120 employees total, and the police department had their own separate IT arrangement. Within about six months I was elevated to a coordinator position that included IT responsibilities. The part-time consultant still handled the major issues, but I was the everyday support for the rest.
The IT infrastructure was about what you might expect for a fairly small town in 2011. We had no wireless access and we bought random switches from online vendors, as necessary. Managing this haphazard infrastructure also meant operating in several separate environments that were not meant to work together.
Resident services were also pretty lackluster. Bill paying processes were often very slow for the residents. Our town board meetings required physical delivery of paper agendas prior to each event. No one had a problem with any of this; it’s just the way it was. We were all pretty used to the limitations of IT in our community and dealt with it.
But then a funny thing happened. We experienced a full-on explosion of the population that began to change the landscape of our town. In 2000, Oswego had a little over 13,300 residents. We were barely a blip on the road to larger destinations. But by 2010, the population totaled more than 30,000. We had more than doubled our size within 10 years.
During that time, technology also began to change. Organizations were increasingly using the cloud and many communities wanted to move away from paper. The bottom line was, we could no longer afford to do things the same way.
A Structure Built for Growth
Around 2012, I began getting serious about growing into a more cohesive IT strategy. As the community grew, so did the related IT responsibilities. Communication between devices or systems was becoming increasingly troublesome. Eventually, it became too much for me to handle alone, and I also knew that I needed to find an easier way to manage everything.
Just because I wanted a change didn’t mean that it happened right away. Oswego couldn’t afford to simply buy a complete system all at once, so we had to build the system piecemeal. As old equipment failed, we began to replace each component with Cisco products. We went with Cisco because, at that time, there was simply nothing else on the market that delivered as much value as Cisco Meraki.
We started with a series of Cisco access points, followed later by a bunch of switches. Eventually, we added security appliances to the system to protect our investment. As the number of user devices grew in number and diversity, a mobile device management solution was the next logical purchase.
Despite purchasing various components at different times, exclusively using Cisco Meraki solutions meant everything fell into place seamlessly. We took baby steps into the future without compromising overall system integrity. Before long, the Village began slowly phasing out the IT consultant and I became a one-man IT department, managing both the village hall and public works facilities.
This is where the power of Meraki really became apparent. Despite the fact that we made multiple small purchases, I was able to manage the entire system from a single dashboard location. That gave us an amazing level of access to data in one place. We could quickly troubleshoot almost any problem in one sitting, which saved a huge amount of time and frustration. No other vendor offered a comparable system.
Eventually, our new IT structure began to set Oswego apart. The cloud may be everywhere today, but being a small community government with cloud-based infrastructure was revolutionary seven years ago. Our town set the benchmark for our peers.
Building Service-Based Advantages from the Cisco Meraki Skeleton
Local governments are not in the business of managing IT. They manage the services provided to the residents of the town. After all, residents don’t care about IT—they care about the impacts that IT has on their daily lives. Building the Cisco Meraki infrastructure makes it possible to connect new technologies as they become available, and residents benefit from those connections.
One of our most noteworthy investments was our Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. Basically, this system manages one database that is used by all government departments. Our finance, zoning and permitting, and licensing software was finally able to draw on the same source of data. Our residents were also able to log in and pay their bills using the same system. That one update immediately reduced resident waiting time for services and facilitated better communication between departments.
Our new technology backbone also allowed us to use a mobile device management system to monitor about 300 devices, including phones, laptops, and iPads. This empowered our ticketing and permitting staff to conduct business in the field, without needing to drive back into the office to manually update the system. It also allowed us to provide board members with iPads so that we could distribute meeting agendas digitally. With all this equipment, we also purchased several security cameras to watch over network closets and server rooms.
But security isn't the only reason we purchased cameras. As our community grew, we wanted to share that progress with residents. We had the idea to post a number of cameras around the area to record developments and new opportunities. Using Cisco Meraki MG cellular gateways, we were able to transmit this video wirelessly to our website. That gave current and future residents a perfect vantage point to watch our community grow.
We may be growing, but I still don't have a multimillion-dollar R&D budget. Fortunately, I can depend on Cisco to stay ahead of the technology curve. Cisco constantly creates new and more efficient devices that can help us to better serve our residents. The best part is, I can participate in the feedback process for these new devices.
Cisco Meraki gives me everything under a single dashboard, which continues to make the management of these tools simple. When we do decide to add something new, like our VoIP system, the Cisco Meraki setup saves us time. Our new VoIP system worked with our existing switches, network, and phone system. It was simply a matter of putting the VLAN tag into the VLAN ID and saving that config. That simple process shrunk our deployment time from hours to seconds.
With Cisco Meraki, the Village of Oswego is at the forefront of local government technology. Other communities look to us to see what solutions we use, and where we intend to build. That makes our little community feel good about our place in the world. And in the end, what more can you ask for?