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County looks to high technology for cost savings

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Think of it as drive-up information, served fast and fresh.

Only, you won’t need a vehicle or face idling in line or have to scramble for dropped change.

You will need a computer or a telephone, laptops and iPhones acceptable.

This is the essence of Hillsborough County’s high tech approach to meeting citizens’ information needs in 2011.

It’s been tagged with several titles ­— Citizens Response Management System, Customer Relations Management System, etc. — but is being more and more widely recognized around county offices simply as CRMS. And there’s little doubt about its objective – more information, accurately transmitted more rapidly between citizens and their government.

It’s also one of the priorities this year as county administrators continue to redesign the bureaucracy’s engine, discarding parts, tightening bolts, consolidating belt drives, aiming for highest efficiency at least cost, said Edith Stewart, public affairs administrator.

CRMS is based on elaborate computer software, currently being brought online by a few other U.S. cities and counties, which Hillsborough, like other jurisdictions, is purchasing and customizing to its specific needs. The City of Seattle, for example, is implementing a system which may already be accessed at least to a limited degree through that city’s website, Stewart noted.
Hillsborough is obtaining its software from a Canadian company, Active Networks, she added. She said she could not yet provide an exact dollar figure but estimated the overall costs in “the hundreds of thousands of dollars.” The ultimate true costs can only be calculated when savings are realized, she indicated.

The key elements of the system are a computer-contained “knowledge base” of information related to every department operating under the county administrator, specific training for existing personnel tapped to serve as primary users, and the email-related accessibility design on the county’s website. There also are security, maintenance and storage components.

Creation of the “knowledge base” now is underway, encompassing collection of useful pertinent information from every area of the county’s governmental machinery with the exception of the offices of the constitutional officers, Stewart said. The individually elected officials at the county level with specific responsibilities such as the Clerk of Circuit Court , the property appraiser, the tax collector and the county sheriff each have their own websites and detailed data related to their offices are not being added to the centralized knowledge base at this time.

Initial training efforts also are shaping up, Stewart said. Administrators are looking among the governmental staff for those persons who have demonstrated particular skills in customer relations and singling them out for intensive training with CRMS. These are the staffers with whom citizens will interact first when they email or call for help with information.

And, before long, the website facility necessary to give citizens easy means of making contact and obtaining an answers to many types of questions will be designed.

Say, for instance, you have a question about a sewer line repair or construction project in your neighborhood. With CRMS, you are to be able to pose your question either through the county website or by telephone to an individual prepared to produce an answer by immediately accessing the knowledge base using the key words most likely to reach the appropriate paragraph or by reaching out to a person with the answer in the appropriate governmental section. Emailed questions will get emailed answers, Stewart pointed out. And, with help of portable electronic technology it’s quite possible, she added, that the answer might come directly from someone actually in the field at the time the question is asked.

From the most straight forward of queries — “What are the hours at the library?”- to complaints about issues within county government purview – “How long before someone condemns this abandoned property?” — to help with mandated activities  – “Who can I go to about my building permit? - it is hoped CRMS will open and keep open free-flowing, two-way communications, the public affairs administrator noted.

The software has “lots of bells and whistles,” Stewart said, adding that what is evolving today should be able also to “plug in” to a sophisticated comprehensive fiscal system anticipated for county government about five years ahead.

In the meantime, work on getting CRMS up and running before the end of this year is proceeding. County officials working on the system also plan to “pick the brains” of managers with firsthand knowledge of private sector call center operations, making use of their tips and hints, Stewart said.

The CRMS concept, she added, has been under discussion at the county level for about three years, coming up at about the same time that recessionary pressures were becoming apparent. It is expected to play a significant role in reducing the costs of government while also bringing governance closer to its constituents.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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