Bringing county offices into the age of technology


COMPUTERS have been a godsend, yet Anne Arundel County government, like many others in Maryland, is struggling to keep pace with the technology revolution.

One county worker, whom I won't identify so she and her department won't be embarrassed, related a story to me two weeks ago.

Earlier this month, she was asked if she would like a used IBM 486 -- the computer equivalent of a Model-T Ford -- to handle her paperwork and records.

Jumping at a 486

Even though most 486 machines have been consigned to the scrap heap, she jumped at the offer. On her desk was an IBM 286, built in the infancy of the personal computer era.

"You can't believe how happy I was to get a computer with a hard disk," she said. "My computer used only floppy disks and was the most difficult machine to use."

She still won't be able to use current WordPerfect or Microsoft Word applications. And if she types something on her home computer, the office computer won't be able to read it.

(In the interest of full disclosure, this column was written on an IBM 286, equipped with a hard disk. It, too, would be a candidate for the Smithsonian's collection.)

William F. Ryan, Anne Arundel County's manager of information systems, estimates about 2,000 personal computers are scattered through county government offices. The average one is about 2 years old, he said.

"There is no reason for people who do primarily word processing to have a high-speed Pentium computer with graphics capability," Mr. Ryan said. "But we need to install appropriate software packages that allow them to do their jobs better."

From his perspective, the age of the machines is not the county's major technology problem. It is integrating the various systems so that workers can do their work more efficiently.

Two systems don't talk

At the moment, the county operates two geographic information systems. One, for maps, is used primarily by the planning department. The other, an infrastructure inventory, is used primarily by public works.

Mr. Ryan and others would like to integrate these because so much of the county's work is related to geography. The difficulty is finding the money and the people to meld the two computer and data systems.

Last year, the county allocated $5.6 million for information services out of its $644 million operating budget.

This was an increase of $979,000 over the previous year. Next year's budget is likely to contain more money to upgrade technology.

Beginning next month, the county will begin testing a new financial system, the fruit of earlier investments in technology.

This system will allow every county department to access financial data from the county budget, general ledger, purchase orders and other information. What was once a cumbersome process to obtain data will be possible at an instant.

This contrasts the computer used for the county's personnel system. It is incapable of comparing salary information of today to, say, five years ago.

The county plans to replace this antiquated, circa-1980s system in two years, avoiding the so-called year 2000 problem that haunts other large mainframe computer systems.

Throwing large sums of money at computers is not sound strategy. To its credit, Anne Arundel seems to be taking a cautious approach. Rather than invest in large proprietary systems, it tends to purchase off-the-shelf systems and software.

Nevertheless, the county has lagged behind in certain technological advances that could improve the flow of information.

No Nets

Although the county is putting the finishing touches on its wide area network, which ties all county PCs, it doesn't have an Intranet system.

That would allow an internal county Web site, where reports and other information could be posted for easy access.

The county also has to develop its own Internet Web site, which would allow anyone to access information, from future council agendas to neighborhood zoning maps.

Economists credit computers and technology investments for much of the recent spurt in American productivity.

Those same investments are likely to make the county government more efficient.

But it takes money and manpower, both of which seem hard to come by in the current political environment.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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