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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.      Vol. 33, No. 11 * June 4, 2001

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E-HR: Advice for the
Digitally Challenged

Once a year the great Neil Reichenberg, executive director of the International Personnel Management Association (IPMA) assembles a small group of Human Resources Directors from counties, cities and other government agencies to share information on trends, expectations and opportunities in the profession for the coming year. The gathering this year clearly showed that “e-HR” dominates the agenda.

Marriages between “e” (electronic) and HR processes are happening all around the country — indeed all over the world. The promise of amazing help in the processing of thousands of transactions in every governmental agency brought to us by happy, smiling vendors of technology is irresistible to overburdened managers. The idea that we could defer to technology the drudgery of paperwork processing, data gathering and database analysis is the hope and dream of “civilized” HR professionals — and every other public administrator, for that matter. The hope that we could spend our precious time actually serving the customers and improving service while reducing costs is an overwhelming lust in our administrative hearts.

Evidence is everywhere that this “e-world” offers advantages in service delivery and convenience in our lives. The HR Doctor is having difficulty remembering when he last stood in line at a bank, or drove to a travel agency. Of course, the HR Doctor is having trouble remembering in general as he passes another birthday milestone — but that’s for another column! Instead, we use ATM machines and online transactions. We serve ourselves rather than be served by another human being. We find this much more convenient — especially at 2 a.m. — and the banks turn transaction costs from dollars each to pennies each. The software and hardware vendors and the Information Technology staff members are ecstatic also. Everyone wins, right?

Not necessarily! Not a single IPMA member in attendance — whether from Florida, California, Kansas, Arizona, Michigan, or Arkansas — not one reported that their “adventure” in the installation of a new automated system went smoothly, went as vendors suggested it would, went within anticipated costs and delivered what it said it would! The software promises offered on the laptop demonstrations by the sales people all too often turn into “vaporware” when the contract is signed; the journey begins and it can’t be reversed. The great promise of things to come battles against the great frustrations and added costs of the experience of “getting there.”

This is all exacerbated by the fact that automation is so “trendy” and compelling. “Any agency who is anyone” can demonstrate how “cool” the place is by referring to the latest “up-to-the-minute” system or the state-of-the-art piece of hardware. Besides the compelling trend is the fact that the “up-to-the-minute” concept in technology is literally a minute by minute changing situation.

The HR Doctor’s wonderful new laptop was out of date by the time I got to the check-out line at the computer store. The same is true of the huge system software public agencies buy in the name of being “modern.”

So, what can a public administrator do — other than make frequent appointments at the Employee Assistance Program? The advice of IPMA participants was consistent and helpful.

First, make sure that greater than expected time is invested at the front end of the process defining needs. Realistically, what should the system do for the agency? This is a form of “forseeability” analysis (see the HR Doctor article on this subject, published on July 31, 2000, and available at Remember the HR needs addressed by the new system are not today’s needs. They are the needs of next year or two years from now!

HR is a “moving target” in the sense that issues change and planning needs to have a longer-range focus than simply next week’s commission meeting or next year’s budget. Imagine spending millions of dollars on a new payroll/HR system only to find that it “imprisons” the agency within system limits. The agency can’t make work flow improvements because “the system” won’t support it!

Do not skimp on the money and staff dedicated to system installation. A great source of failure reported by colleagues stems from the “victory” of the budget recommendations — usually made by people who have no responsibility to make the system work — that implementation staff can do two jobs at once, or “we don’t need to spend that much” on system training or “the vendor will take care of that,” etc. Such thinking is a false economy. Installation requires major and on-going education, backup staff knowledgeable about the system, etc.

Rely on the vendor? “Not,” reported our colleagues. Vendor promises reportedly are what the HR Daughter, Elyse, describes as “pie crust promises” — easily made and easily broken. One agency reported that the vendor went through six project managers trying to get the installation right! Public agencies aren’t the only ones with turnover problems. An agency on the brink of a giant e-installation may be very well served by also contracting with a consulting firm to manage and ride herd on the vendor. Such a consultant may be better positioned than internal staff to know what other agencies have experienced with this vendor and how to negotiate with them. The consultant may also be able to offer help in writing the vendor contract and being on the lookout for hidden traps and land mines.

Consider not even doing it yourself. That is, outsourcing the system to an “ASP” — an Administrative Service Provider — may be a great source of headache relief. An ASP “houses” your data on the company’s hardware and software. In effect, you lease the system from the ASP rather than purchase it yourself. The ASP handles system upgrades, negotiates with vendors and takes the aspirin. On the other hand, if the ASP were to F-O-L-D, the agency could be in trouble. On the other hand (again), selecting a vendor and buying a system does not at all guarantee the vendor will still be in business, or that the vendor will support the version of the software you bought two years ago — or two months ago. Actually, I’m sure the vendor would, but for an additional and substantial fee. By the way, there are always some new versions!

This “don’t even do it yourself” idea goes to the heart of the “core service” debate. Should a public agency try to do a job that may be better managed by a private organization with diverse clients and up-to-date expertise? Increasingly the answer is “no” — hence the growth of the ASP industry.

Make friends with other agencies to share information and trauma of the system installation. Perhaps a consortium of smaller agencies or a future role for NACo or the NACo FSC may emerge — to help with consulting and “master contracts” with vendors or consultants.

Be realistic in making promises about what a new system will do and when it will be available. Take the vendor’s promises and add some significant additional factor for delay and added cost. Include very clear “service-level guarantees” in any contract negotiated, including those with ASPs. An example might be the system being “up” at least 97 percent of the time, or hosted data backed up daily.

Include a disaster recovery component. What if the hardware is damaged by a flood, plague, locusts or other biblical event? Or, in California’s case, a new biblical catastrophe — the power outage.

Keep elected and appointed officials informed regularly about the state of the installation. The vendor-friend of today could well be the defendant or plaintiff in your next lawsuit when you stop payment as a dissatisfied client!

Much of the tone of this article has been a “defensive” one. However, the HR Doctor must point out that the billions of dollars being spent and the intense focus on e-government everywhere in the country represent a great positive movement in public administration — harnessing technology to make government more responsive and convenient for the citizens. It is possible to deliver great service 24/7 without dehumanizing the process. We cannot turn back from the imperative to use emerging technologies. What we can do is apply our stewardship of taxpayer money wisely and judiciously in moving to service improvements. It is really a question of how and how quickly, not whether, e-HR will be everywhere!

The HR Doctor hopes your laptop batteries always stay charged!

All the best,


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