My work with relational databases goes back to 1991. At that time, I primarily worked the political end of database management and programming. When I became County Clerk, I brought those skills to the office. Over time, we’ve developed a number of database applications that have allowed us to reduce staff while increasing our level of service to the public.
At this time, we have no proprietary software solutions in our office, except for the program that designs and counts our ballots and an add on for scanning, imaging, and OCRing documents. Our property tax program is designed and maintained by the County IT department and also serves the Treasurer’s office and the Supervisor of Assessments Office. Our applications for voter registration, notaries, assumed business names, births, marriages and a variety of other items have been designed within our office.
There is no shortage of software vendors for government administration. Many of the products are high quality, but my experience has been that most are overpriced and lack the flexibility that our organization desires. We purchased a marriage license program in my first year as County Clerk that was serviceable, but doesn’t even come close to matching the efficiency of our current system. I have examined a number of the voter registration programs that exist. I saw only one that impressed me and its price tag was a million dollars, not including the ongoing maintenance and licensing costs.
We’ve developed a system in house that mirrors much of the best of what we’ve seen in other systems. It’s paid for, no licensing fees, and it gives us additional flexibility and the ability to make modifications based on future needs. We are currently making upgrades to the system thanks to a federal grant under the Election Administration Commission’s Data Collection Grant. While we will be compliant with the grant requirements by the end of the year, we anticipate continued development of our system until March of next year. Because we develop using SQL Server for our data and Visual Studio for our front end, our software would not fall under the open source umbrella, but the benefits from the software are much like what you’d get in the open source environment.
Because our system is developed within our office, we can make modifications more quickly and at a lower cost than other systems. As the federal government and states begin to look at more on line digital government solutions, the need to modify current software solutions will be even more important.
Going it alone, so to speak, is a challenge. The dividends are substantial, but there is no doubt that it can be very time consuming in the short run. It would be difficult to quantify the time I have put into software development, but it certainly is measured in the thousands of hours. Few County Clerk Offices in the state or country have those types of resources available.
That’s the background that brings me to one of the more positive notes out of the Democracy Index (a book I’ve spent considerable time panning). Gerken makes a call that is long overdue. It is for open source solutions to government technology issues.
The preferred method for most governments to address their technology issues is to find a solution off the shelf or to pay a consultant to put together a solution or to do a hybrid of the two. All are costly, and all are legendary for not delivering a product that is vibrant, dynamic and flexible.
Here in Champaign county we are seeing it in the criminal justice area. We have paid millions for a software solution that already is showing its age and limitations. We are having similar issues with our payroll system.
Both the criminal justice software and payroll software are functions that every county in America has to deal with. It is incomprehensible to think that it couldn’t be done at a far lower cost (with likely better results) by collaboration among those counties in an open source environment.
Which brings us to open source software whereby the code for the program is available to all users and can be modified in a way that suits a particular organization. Modifications to the original code are made available to all users. There are no licensing fees and no impediments to developing the software to meet the changing needs of the organization.
My next posts will examine these questions. What are the benefits to open source? What are the factors that impede those solutions? How do we make the way for open source solutions in the future?