Articles C2 Spring 2021 Mission Critical

A COUNTY GOVERNMENT MEETS ITS HARDEST TEST: COVID-19

As its residents face unprecedented challenges, Kern County ramps up response to deliver assistance and support.

For the Information Technology Services (ITS) department of California’s Kern County, driving cost-efficiency has long been a strategic priority. Implementing flexible solutions like HPE GreenLake has enabled the department to support county government agencies effectively despite ongoing budgetary pressures. But when COVID-19 hit, the department’s centralized, as-a-service model paid off in other, more important ways. It allowed ITS to quickly deploy critical IT resources—such as work-from-home capabilities for employees—that the agencies need to protect the safety and well-being of Kern County residents.

Even in normal times, more than a million residents of central California’s Kern County depend on the county government for critical public services. These essential services include trash collection; social services such as medical expense assistance foster parenting, and in-home supportive services; public transportation; business permits and property records searches; and public safety services such as crisis services, victim rights support, and non-emergency crime reporting.

 

“With COVID, our whole industry had to adapt and find new ways to deliver
services to our customers.”
Mac Avancena, Chief Information Technology Officer, Kern County

 

But these aren’t normal times. Around the world, the COVID-19 viral pandemic has put unprecedented pressure on people’s health, well-being, economic status, and state of mind. Depending on a range of regional variables, people are being subjected continually to various levels of social isolation, from social distancing to full in-home lockdowns. Under these conditions, government services can become a lifeline, ensuring people are safe, have food on the table, and are getting the healthcare they need.

Fortunately for residents of Kern County, the county government was preparing for non-normal times long before anyone had even heard of the COVID virus. As a result, Kern County citizens today have anytime, anywhere access to the services they need to stay safe and withstand the stresses of a global pandemic.

 

FISCAL EMERGENCY

At 8,132 square miles—nearly as large as the entire state of New Hampshire—Kern County is the third largest county in the state of California by area. Agriculture is one of its primary economic sectors.
The county spans the southern end of California’s Central Valley and is the third largest agricultural producer, by sales in the United States. Another key industry for the county is energy, including oil, natural gas, and renewables. Kern County’s solar and wind farms produce around a quarter of California’s in-state renewable energy.

Kern County is also largely rural; with around 108 people per square mile, it ranks around the middle of California counties by population density. And, as is common in more rural areas of the United States, Kern County residents are challenged by relatively high levels of unemployment and relatively low median incomes.

These economic realities have significant implications for the county government. Kern County’s vision is to be customer-centered and to earn and keep the community’s confidence, support, and trust. But its property tax rates are relatively low—less than half of counties located in California’s wealthier coastal regions. This makes Kern County particularly vulnerable to economic downturns, a lesson brought home between 2014 and 2016, when plummeting oil prices triggered a drop in the county’s tax revenues.

Kern County soon found itself facing a $44.5M structural deficit. It declared a fiscal emergency and began asking hard questions. How could it maintain its commitment to residents while simultaneously tightening its belt?

 

LEAN TIMES CALL FOR INNOVATIVE MEASURES

In 2016, with tax revenues falling for the third straight year, the county acted. It announced its LaunchKern initiative.

Drawing on Lean Six Sigma principles, LaunchKern equipped county employees with new ways to identify and correct process inefficiencies. The program worked. To date, LaunchKern has delivered a whopping $19.7M in county government savings.

While many Kern County departments contributed to that success, by 2019 its Information Technology Services (ITS) department had emerged as a key player, leading the way in driving meaningful process improvements. ITS achievements that year alone included developing a next-generation government transparency portal that delivered annual savings of $40K; centralizing its decision support system to reduce software license fees by $10K annually and soft costs by around $50K per year, and rationalizing the county’s data and internet connections to drive annual savings of $13K.

But Kern County ITS wasn’t focused on cost savings alone. “The utopia for any CIO is to enable IT as a strategic partner for the business,” explains Mac Avancena, Chief Information Technology Officer, Kern County. “That means using data-driven decision-making to align our strategies to technology outcomes.”

 

THE RIGHT SERVICES, THE RIGHT WAY

Saving money is a welcome goal in any organization, but for Kern County ITS, it wasn’t enough. “IT has to become a critical enabler and strategic partner,” says Avancena. “We have to drive business outcomes.”

So instead of focusing on cost-cutting alone, Avancena’s organization set a second goal: to continuously improve its infrastructure and services so they more effectively meet the needs of Kern County agencies. As a result, by the end of 2019, ITS was successfully supporting a range of business priorities identified by Kern County agencies, including democratizing data to improve agency decision-making and enable better transparency; supporting higher bandwidth and IT flexibility to empower departments’ digital projects; strengthening relationships with the county’s IT vendors; and building out solutions to support the cutting-edge digital capabilities that agencies need to improve their digital services, such as Internet of Things (IoT) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) solutions.

One of the key strategies the department leveraged during this process was its relationship with Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), including HPE Pointnext Services, HPE Financial Services, and HPE Platinum Partner Nth Generation. Working with HPE Pointnext Services, Kern County centralized its IT infrastructure under HPE GreenLake, leveraging HPE Accelerated Migration services to swiftly consolidate its production IT infrastructure under one management structure. The solution equipped Kern County ITS with next-generation tooling and capabilities; that, in turn, enabled Kern County ITS to drive new value to county agencies—including smaller departments with fewer resources. The HPE GreenLake solution also enabled the county to convert its IT spend from a CAPEX to an OPEX model; this freed available capital funds for investment in other transformation initiatives.

“HPE GreenLake removed budget constraints,” Avancena notes, “while giving us a common platform to support the use cases of the businesses we serve.”

HPE Financial Services joined the team to help Kern County successfully navigate key junctures of its transition to the HPE GreenLake solution. One roadblock Kern County faced during the migration, for example, was that it was running out of storage capacity—and slowdowns in global supply chains were making it difficult to procure additional storage systems. HPE Financial Services stepped in and quickly sourced 200 TB of additional storage capacity through HPE certified pre-owned technology. HPE integrated these storage systems into the HPE GreenLake environment, where they now serve as critical storage buffer capacity.

HPE Financial Services also brokered a buyback purchase of a legacy HPE 3PAR storage installation owned by Kern County; this freed additional funds for the county to apply to its HPE GreenLake solution budget. By taking a portfolio approach to its tech estate, Kern County made substantial progress in stabilizing its budgets while expanding its technology capabilities. And then came COVID.

 

“The HPE GreenLake pay-as-you-grow model eliminates time-to-market bottlenecks,” Avancena explains. There are no slowdowns associated with procurement, delivery, installation, and configuration of computing resources. “While HPE GreenLake manages our back-end system, my team can focus on solving customer problems.”
Mac Avancena, Chief Information Technology Officer, Kern County

 

PREPARATION PAYS OFF

It’s fair to say that before 2020, nobody seriously considered a scenario where hundreds of millions of people would have to be confined to their homes for extended periods of time. But then COVID-19 struck. To control this highly contagious and deadly disease, lockdowns became an ongoing reality.

Within Kern County ITS, the lockdowns had an immediate impact on department focus and priorities. The county government provides dozens, if not hundreds, of essential services to its residents. It needed to keep those services running without putting employees at risk.

Thanks to HPE GreenLake, ITS was ready. “As a platform built to scale, HPE GreenLake enabled us to accommodate the influx of demand for virtual desktop infrastructure access,” Avancena says. Kern County was able to actively encourage its departments to work remotely. “About 40% of our businesses are actively working from home,” Avancena notes.

But perhaps more significantly, the flexibility and scalability of HPE GreenLake meant that Kern County agencies can more quickly adapt their digital services to the needs of the county’s socially isolated residents.

“The HPE GreenLake pay-as-you-grow model eliminates time-to-market bottlenecks,” Avancena explains. There are no slowdowns associated with procurement, delivery, installation, and configuration of computing resources. “While HPE GreenLake manages our back-end system, my team can focus on solving customer problems.”

This makes HPE GreenLake a critical enabler within the ITS department’s shift to a more customer-focused model. “We’ve accelerated our ability to pivot and bring a more flexible, practical, and cost-effective approach to commodity IT,” Avancena says. “Our HPE GreenLake platform allows Kern County agencies to put their focus on creating digital experiences for their customers.”

 

LIGHT AT THE END OF THE COVID TUNNEL

Kern County has significant challenges ahead. The economic impact of the COVID pandemic has put new pressures on the county’s budget. But the county’s ITS team is confident its investment in flexible, cost-effective IT systems and processes will continue to pay off, no matter what the future brings.

“It’s the little things that matter the most,” Avancena concludes. “Simplifying your IT stack, finding ways to transform your businesses to become more dynamic, enabling services any place, anytime, anywhere. These are the ways we drive fundamental changes in how we manage business demands. And that’s why we celebrate HPE GreenLake as a prudent financial investment.”

 

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