The 17th century saw the widespread introduction of domesticated cows to North American shores by English settlers. However, over the next century it became clear that while the cows were docile and produced good milk and meat, they were not particularly well suited to the harsh winters of the New World and consumed food at a rate that was hard to sustain for the burgeoning colonies. As settlement pressed west during the 18th century, farmers found vast herds of buffalo that had roamed the American plains for eons. They were large and unruly but also better adapted to the cold weather and ate less food. After witnessing the offspring of “accidental” pairings between buffalo and cows, the settlers began experimenting with careful mating of the two species in order to create a heartier livestock. After a couple hundred years of experimentation, the 1960’s brought the first viable offspring which quickly came to be known as the “beefalo.” This hybrid animal displayed a perfect blend of the desirable traits of its parents: docile, lean, adequate milk, moderate eating, and hearty enough to survive the coldest nights. In genetic science, this phenomenon is known as hybrid vigor, and it’s the reason that the beefalo has a lot to teach the modern IT department about the benefits of a hybrid approach to outsourcing.
Traditionally, outsourcing is considered a “cows or buffalos” proposition; IT functions are either kept fully in-house or they are handled entirely by a third-party vendor, with little overlap between the two. While there are benefits to each method, the inherent weaknesses of both are becoming increasingly hard for municipal governments to navigate. While in-house IT offers greater, control and flexibility, it can also be costly and require a great deal of effort to manage. Outsourced IT services offer a better route for smaller cities, allowing them access to top-tier talent at an affordable rate. However, bringing in outside help may be perceived as a loss of control and transparency, and there’s always the risk that the vendor might go out of business. Municipalities have spent countless hours trying to determine which route works best, only to find that the answers were never clear-cut.
Modern municipalities face tightening budgets, increasing regulations and greater public scrutiny, all creating an IT environment that on the one hand requires cost-effectiveness and control and on the other high-technology and transparency. The increasing pressure is putting IT departments in a position where they need to adapt to the changing landscape or suffer the consequences of budget cuts, furloughs, and other cost cutting measures. So how do these departments make such a move? Do as the settlers did: create a hybrid. Such a hybrid of in-house IT knowledge and outsourced services could bring the benefits of both and enable the city to meet the needs of its internal and external customers. Let’s take a look at how a hybrid outsourced model might fit into some common municipal IT department models.
Experienced Internal IT Team
As a long time IT engineer, I’m willing to bet that any experienced IT staff will tell you they would rather be doing cool special projects like server virtualization or ERP system rollouts than rote tasks like nightly server backups and virus patching. These special projects offer a chance for the team to learn new skills and actually shape the environment they maintain, an exciting prospect for any dyed-in-the-wool engineer. The problem is these types of projects often take a long time to plan, implement, and launch; time the team isn’t spending doing the mundane but highly necessarily day-to-day tasks. This is a good place to consider an outsourced hybrid model.
Instead of overburdening an experienced team with added hours to ensure the environment is kept up, let them focus on the engaging special projects while an outsourced team handles the day to day operations. Normally, this would mean that the vendor is doing things like user support, routine maintenance, backups, virus protection and so on. These functions are fairly standard across all IT departments so it shouldn’t take a vendor too long to ramp up on your environment. In fact, you might want to elect a project manager on your side to mentor the vendor until they can mirror the internal processes. This model works well because it gives your special projects the attention they need, speeds up the vendor’s time to be effective and ensures that the environment is in top operating condition.
However, not all cities will have the experience needed to engage in special projects. In fact, many cities will have a mix of experience, resulting in a team that is very good at the maintenance and operations, but might not have the experience or time to perform special projects. Again, a hybrid model can fit in nicely by allowing the internal team to focus on running the daily operations like back-ups, maintenance, and help desk while an outsourced vendor handles planning and rolling out the special projects. This gives both areas the attention to detail they need to be truly successful and it won’t encumber the internal staff with a monumental task.
The main advantage in this situation is time. An outsourced vendor is going to have experience in completing whatever special project is at hand and won’t need much time to ramp up on the project. An internal team will likely need to learn an entirely new skill set and experience some of the hard lessons that come with any new project rollout which may increase the time it takes to fully complete the project. While an outsourced vendor might cost more upfront, consider that, due to a lack of experience, it might take the internal team longer to complete the project increasing the overall cost.
Small Internal IT Team
Many smaller cities may only have one person to manage the entire IT infrastructure. This brave soul usually has to perform operations and special projects. If this person gets too busy on a particular task, other areas of the infrastructure can start to suffer, leading to an inconsistent level of service. The city might be tempted to hire additional help for this person when things get busy, but it’s sometimes difficult to justify bringing in a new employee simply as a stop-gap. Here, an outsourced approach can help reduce the workload while adding stability and predictability to the environment so that it’s not in constant flux. For instance, you might outsource patching, monitoring, and backup functions while keeping the in-house employee for “boots on the ground” maintenance. Think of it like an alarm system: you use an outsourced alarm company to detect problems, but your internal staff reacts to the alarm. This hybrid augments and better equips the employee to be highly efficient, especially in light of the increasingly complex world of civic IT that might quickly overburden a single person (endless open records requests come to mind.)
No Internal IT Team
If you have no internal IT team it probably means that various department stakeholders such as City Officials or the Police Chief are the ones managing IT for their department. In many cases, it’s clear when the city needs an outside vendor to properly maintain the environment, but sometimes such talk can also illicit fears of loss of control. Stakeholders might be unwilling to give up access to sensitive information, especially when it comes to the Public Safety department. However, in a hybrid approach the vendor would take care of all of the maintenance and operations while leaving access to important data and applications in the hands of the stakeholders. For instance, the Police Chief could still control access to the public safety servers while the outsourced vendor maintains and backs them up. This approach can help smaller cities maintain a secure and stable network at an expense that is often much lower than hiring full-time IT staff, if the stakeholders are willing to give up a little power so that they can better focus on their primary role for the city.
Each of these examples illustrates that when you’re considering outsourced IT, it helps to think of it not as an all or nothing affair but rather as a sliding scale. Outsourcing can be brought in at any level to aid the city’s IT infrastructure, from a full-bore outsourced IT shop to a simple, ongoing relationship with internal staff. Adapting to the changing municipal government IT environment is going to require the familiarity of the domesticated cow combined with the exotic strength of the buffalo to be truly successful. It’s up to each city to create a hybrid that’s best adapted to their environment, but I’ll bet the milk farm that an IT beefalo will be a beneficial addition to any municipality’s IT operation for years to come.
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