Community Voices—Finding New Ways to Communicate: Expanding Oakland County eGovernment Services
From left to right: Val Talia (Oakland County); Cody Szostek, Alex Dietrich, Jerold Lewis, and Cody Hall (MSU students); Jim Taylor (Oakland County).
Over the past couple of decades Oakland County, Michigan, has faced the same budget challenges that confront local governments everywhere in the United States. Yet the county government has remained financially stable and its portfolio of services offered to the public has grown rather than dwindled.
Using technological resources to the hilt is a big part of this success story. Since the 1990s the county has been developing online initiatives to manage business operations more cost-effectively, create automated systems, and establish on-demand reporting to support the best decisions about budgeting and operations. Its IT department has worked hard to enable more interactive communication with the public and to make services and information available in multiple formats and platforms. All of this has resulted in a government that is both more transparent and more engaging for the constituents it serves.
Officials who run the county's IT department say that a collaborative partnership between their eGovernment office and MSU deserves a fair share of the credit. Since 2004, they have been working with an MSU capstone/ practicum course in information technology management that brings graduating seniors out to the county to assist with Oakland's eGovernment challenges.
The course, ITM 444, is offered by Communication Arts and Sciences. It is part of the undergraduate minor in information technology, and is co-instructed by associate professor Constantinos Coursaris and assistant professor Wietske van Osch, both of the Department of Media and Information.
Each year a new project is undertaken. In 2004, their first year at Oakland County, the students created a strategy for the county to begin accepting electronic submissions of commonly used forms. In 2005-2006, they developed a conversion to allow access to content and applications via handhelds like cell phones and PDAs. They have since created an e-mail subscription service, a series of training videos to promote and explain the my.oakgov.com portal, a crowdsourcing application that increases opportunities for two-way communication with residents and visitors, and more.
Under the direction of eGovernment staff, the students gather requirements, create a development strategy, make recommendations, and plan the implementation of a prototype or pilot. They function as a group of professional consultants working for the county.
Jim Taylor, chief of eGovernment in the IT department, and Phil Bertolini, deputy county executive and CIO, have nothing but praise for the program. "We've implemented all of the projects the students have worked on," said Taylor. "Some have won national awards."
This year Oakland County launched the G2G Marketplace (g2gmarket.com), an online store that provides local governments with an easy way to research and purchase technology and professional services. G2G simplifies the purchase and licensing process by offering pre-negotiated blanket purchase agreements with approved vendors so government agencies can acquire technology and services quickly. The Marketplace boasts several advantages, said Taylor. It reduces costs associated with researching and drafting complex agreements with vendors; it takes advantage of savings from shared software and licensing purchases; and, by cutting costs, it makes resources available to local governments that would not otherwise be able to afford them. "We believe in starting small and growing organically," he said. "New solutions and professional services are being added every day."
Oakland County, Michigan
By the numbers
- 6 county-wide elected officials
- 21 elected commissioners
- 62 local communities (urban and rural)
- 82 departments and agencies
- 910 square miles
- 4,000 county employees
- 1.2 million residents
Adapted from: Washington, S., & Coursaris, C. (2009, November). eGovernment services for a sustainable county. Presented at the 5th Annual World Usability Day, East Lansing, MI.
The cohort of MSU students who worked on this project did a preliminary study on how governments purchase technology. They conducted an analysis to identify current government procurement "stores" or services and wrote a report detailing potential competitors to the proposed Marketplace. They also evaluated the G2G Marketplace site that was under development by Oakland County, and made recommendations for future enhancements based on market research. They created a prototype to demonstrate recommended new features and submitted an implementation strategy with their final report.
The students were equally enthusiastic about their experience on the project. When Taylor wrote to the class in September of this year to let them know that G2G had not only launched but made the "Best of the Week" article for Government Technology magazine, Alex Dietrich (Media and Information, Spring 2014), responded, "It is truly awesome to see something we had a hand in creating come to fruition. This was a project I was extremely proud of and provided me with a wealth of knowledge." He also had positive things to say about working with the Oakland County staff: "You and your team helped tremendously in guiding us through the project and you ensured we succeeded."
Cody Hall (Marketing, Spring 2014), agreed. "It is really cool that our project came to life," he said. "I appreciate the update. The market research experience I gained during this project helped me land a market research analyst position soon after graduation. You could bring this up while recruiting kids for next year's project because it really helped me."
Dr. Coursaris said, "I am grateful to the dozens of organizations that have supported the professional development and personal growth of our undergraduate students over the past decade by affording them these experiential learning opportunities. Oakland County—or OakGov—is the longest standing supporter of this program, having participated in the Capstone annually ever since its inception 10 years ago. OakGov's CIO, Phil Bertolini—recipient of the Outstanding Alumni Award from the College of Communication Arts and Sciences—and Jim Taylor have been instrumental not only in making these new media projects available to our students but also in offering personal mentorship of the students in the process. OakGov is truly a great role model for prospective community partners."
Put some skin in the game. The partnership has to be strong. Choose partners that are committed to being successful and form a strong relationship."
Bertolini summed up the interaction this way: "We are used to accomplishing things our way and the students give us a fresh perspective. What they learn from us is how to take it to market. Jim is their resource, the one with real-world experience. We promise if the result is reasonable, it will be implemented. The students are expected to meet deadlines, prepare presentations, and know that their decisions impact citizens. At the presentations we press them on their recommendations and how those fit our organization."
Funding comes from a fee that the county pays to the university, said Taylor. The county is also expected to provide the hardware, software, and other resources that the students need to complete their project. Students donate about 400 hours to these projects, for an estimated savings of more than $10,000 a year for the county.
When asked if he had any advice for MSU faculty who want to work with community partners, Bertolini said, "Yes. The same advice as for the businesses that want to partner with them: Put some skin in the game. The partnership has to be strong. Choose partners that are committed to being successful and form a strong relationship."
For faculty to understand governments, said Bertolini, "Come out and see what we do. Until you do, it's hard to understand the services governments provide. We provide the best services we can for 1.2 million people in the county. It's not just pushing paper. You need to see it. Don't hesitate to go out and visit." And, he added, "Remember that we get as much out of the program as the students do. Their outstanding ability to do research is a credit to the university. I don't regret a single dollar we have spent on this program."