IT Gets Easier in the Big Easy
- By Joab Jackson
Like much of the rest of the city, New Orleans' information technology
department was nearly crippled by Hurricane Katrina. But as the city continues
to put itself back together, the IT department has been able to rebuild -- and
even improve some operations. The automation of its business processes has been
among the improvements.
"It was really, really devastating. It actually changed the way we do
business," said Anthony Jones, New Orleans' chief technology officer.
Katrina hit New Orleans just before Labor Day weekend in 2005. The resulting
floods wreaked considerably more havoc, forcing many residents to leave temporarily
or for good.
"I had to do a lot of things to stay afloat," Jones said. Although
the city's data center, located on the third floor of a downtown building,
wasn't flooded, it did suffer brownouts.
The citywide network, much of which still ran on copper, got waterlogged.
Perhaps worst of all, the city's IT department gradually lost a lot of
employees through attrition and cut-backs. The staff went from 55 employees
"We really stretched the limited budget we had," Jones said. "Every
dollar...was scrutinized two or three times."
So when faced with setting up support to aid residents whose homes were damaged
in the hurricane, the city decided to automate as much of the workflow as possible
by using business process management (BPM) software.
City residents qualified for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's
Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which helps owners of hurricane-damaged homes
demolish or rebuild them. But the city had little time to process all the applications.
More than 100,000 homes in New Orleans were flooded, and FEMA had a 60-day
deadline for filing applications, though the agency later extended the deadline
by 45 days.
Because the process of submitting forms involved multiple steps, BPM software
seemed perfect for the task.
Simply put, BPM software automates workflow processes, said Laura Mooney, director
of corporate marketing at Metastorm, whose software New Orleans used for the
task. BPM lets you model the various facets of your organization -- such as
people, components and data -- and map out all the steps in a process, such
as applying for a grant. A BPM server can be set up to offer forms to users
and, when the forms are filled out, check to see if they are complete. The software
can route the completed forms to everyone who needs to review them in the proper
"It frees people to be doing stuff of higher value than sending documents
around," Mooney said.
BPM software tends to be expensive. Implementations start at about $125,000
and could cost more depending on the number of processes and scope of deployment,
Mooney said. But it can handle multiple processes, even when each process has
many steps. Plus, BPM software can work with all the applications that typically
would be used in some part of the process -- such as a financial or human resources
"When you're going across departments, that's where you'll
get huge increases of efficiencies using BPM," Mooney said.
Systems integration company Ciber led the effort to install New Orleans'
Most of the work involved setting up the backend processes, Jones said.
As it turned out, Louisiana set up its own relief effort while the workflow
was in development, so the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program got only a few thousand
The resulting system, however, saved time for applicants and city workers,
reducing the time to get through the process from 30 to 45 days to 14 to 21
The software also worked as a document management system. "Any picture
that was taken, any copies of the tax bill, anything pertaining to the insurance
that the homeowner had was all scanned and saved within this application,"
BPM worked so well that the city is expanding the software's role to handle
other tasks, such as routing contracts through the approval process.
This year, the city will process between $1 billion and $2 billion worth of
contracts. Each contract moves by manila folder through approximately eight
"So it goes from my desk to your desk, and if you put it under a stack of papers,
you may not find it for two months. In the meantime, people are calling the
mayor and saying, 'Where's my contract?'" said Jeff Talley, Ciber's state
and local government director who was also site director for the company's work
with New Orleans.
It takes the city three months to six months to approve each contract. Officials
want to get that down to three weeks.
Through a Web dashboard, the BPM software will allow city officials to pinpoint
where a contract is in the process and who is next to sign off on it.
The city is also automating its permit system for digging on city streets.
The BPM system will interface with the city's geographic information system,
allowing officials to identify areas that need to be dug up. It will also give
people requesting permits access to a portal displaying the status of their
"We wanted to remove the parts that require manual intervention," Jones said.
Joab Jackson is the chief technology editor of Government Computing News (GCN.com).