Every new budget cycle brings a bevy of projects and ideas before city council for approval. While projects like sidewalk improvement or traffic decongestion are easy to explain in terms of benefits and return on investment, IT projects can be a thorny subject, especially if the council is largely made up of non-technical folks. Add to this the fact that it usually falls upon a non-technical city manager or administrator to present the project to city council. As a non-technical person myself, I’ve spent years presenting technical projects to other non-techie decision makers, and I’ve come up with a few key tips to increase your chances of a successful presentation by presenting the problem as a business solution instead of a technical one.
Assessing the Problem
The first and best way to drum up support in council for an IT project is to start with a detailed assessment of the problem. Typically this is done in two main parts: discovery and impact. The discovery phase pins down the exact nature of the problem by taking a cold, hard look at the present state of operations. What’s wrong with the current process or IT solution? What is the cost in employee work hours, support time, and maintenance? Asking tough questions early on will help root out any issues that may come up when the proposal is brought before council. The impact phase will look at how the new solution will effect the city’s operations. What’s the new IT solution adding to the municipality’s operations? Is it increasing efficiency, mitigating risk, or reducing costs? If so, by how much? The goal in this phase is to be as concrete as possible, showing in real numbers how the city would benefit from implementing the solution. Each of these phases will benefit greatly from in-depth interviews with key stakeholders in the project. While managers can offer great insight, try to focus the bulk of the interviews on experienced “in-the-trenches” employees who likely know the intricacies of the current technology or process.
Say for instance you want to upgrade your phone system to a voice-over-IP (VOIP) solution. The discovery phase might focus on how much the current voice line contract costs, the level of service from the vendor, and the inefficiency and lack of features of the current system. Once that is nailed down, the impact phase would determine the cost of the new phones and service agreements, and detail what new features make VOIP more efficient than the old system. You might also try to pin down how many work hours per week would be saved by switching to the new system. In another example, if you want to reduce the number of servers in the IT department, the discovery phase might set out to determine the current cost to purchase and maintain the hardware and software, the energy cost to run the servers and cool the server room, and the amount of space taken up by the equipment. The impact might focus on how much lower the hardware, energy, and support costs would be after consolidation and what could be done with the leftover space and decommissioned hardware.
Presenting the Problem
Human nature dictates that we have an easier time making a decision when we have a keen understanding of the situation at hand. The problem is that at cities, non-technical people are often asked to make decisions about highly-technical problems. The result is that sometimes a project is shot down due to misinformation or a lack of understanding of the true benefits. This can create an atmosphere where presenting the project to council can be a difficult task. However, instead of a barrier this can present an opportunity to make a great impact on the decision making process by focusing on two key concepts: education and consensus.
When presenting a technical concept to a non-technical audience, try to stay away from the nuts and bolts of how it works. Instead, try to keep it high-level and focus on the key benefits of the new solution over what is currently in place. Make use of simple charts, graphics and other visual tools to bring the solution out of the conceptual and into the real world. For the VOIP project, you might discuss how the current system works: “Presently, when someone gets a voicemail, they need to log into the phone at their desk and get the message.” From there, discuss how a VOIP system would improve that: “The VOIP system allows voicemail to be sent directly to email so an employee can easily check voicemail from anywhere with an internet connection, saving us over 1 hour per day per employee and enabling work from home environment.” Education about the server consolidation project might use simple graphics to explain how the project combines many physical servers into just a few, leading to maintenance and energy cost savings. Educating the decision makers on the basics of the new solution will go a long way towards easing any fears of the unknown and is a lot more effective than “Trust me, we need this.”
Secondly, building consensus is a key value for any government but sometimes the notion is lost in the push to get an IT project approved. However, when presenting a technical project to a non-technical audience, coming into the discussion with a prebuilt consensus can easily turn a tough discussion into an easy decision. Remember the key stakeholder and employee interviews you did during the assessment phase? Once you have chosen a solution, go back to those same folks and get their buy-in before you go in front of council. Not only will they appreciate the gesture, they will have an actual investment in the project and act as an ardent supporter of the cause. While the council may not understand the technical details of the solution, it will understand the power of consensus from the workforce. After all, being able to say “I have buy-in from every major department head on the implementation of a VOIP system” holds a lot more power than “we just need it.”
Pushing an IT initiative through city council is more than just issuing an RFP and letting the vendor make the case. By taking the time to properly assess the problem and describe the impact, you’ll be much better equipped to explain the solution to the stakeholders and gain their critical buy-in. With the consensus in hand, a thoughtful and educating presentation to city council will give you the best possible chance of success in getting your initiative approved and driving true innovation at your city.
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