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Taming the PC with the ASP.

The emergence of the personal computer as an invaluable tool epitomizes the technological revolution over the past decade. It was not too long ago that personal computers were a rare sight in an office setting, an oddity seen only on the desks of engineers or legal secretaries. But now personal computers are commonplace, occupying prime office desk space previously reserved for telephones, typewriters or adding machines. Everyone, from secretaries to account clerks to executives, puts PCs to almost continual use. Even when not in use, the machines take on a presence of their own with screens displaying the dancing geometric shapes generated by "screen savers," which prevent images burning into the screens.

Boon or Bane?

There is no question that personal computers have been a boon to productivity in municipal government and that they have revolutionized office functions. But there are many managers who have been harboring concerns related to the uncontrolled growth of personal computers. Hardware or software purchased before Easter can be outmoded by Halloween. It is frustrating to watch a 50-page document composed in the finance department be manually retyped by the attorney's office due to different departmental preferences for word processing software. Documents are vulnerable to computer malfunctions when PC users do not take the time to back-up their files. Entire organizations can be infected by computer viruses with bizarre names like Music Bug or Devil's Dance. With all of these risks, managers may wonder whether the tools designed to make jobs easier might not, in the end, make people's lives more difficult.

These concerns were recently addressed in Addison, Texas, with the adoption of a standardization policy for personal computers. The policy was developed, not as an innovative solution to a growing problem nor because the Addison finance department wanted to build a reputation as being on the cutting edge of public policy making, but because of an irate council.

An Auditor's Observation

Like all cities, Addison's finances are scrutinized each year by independent auditors. A part of the auditing process is the issuance of the ubiquitous "Report to Management." In the 1990 Report to Management, an auditor observed, "No formal policies exist regarding purchases of hardware and software for user departments, data back-up standards for personal computers or access to personal computers and data files." This observation had been made in prior-year reports; but, while acknowledging that a standard policy was "a great idea," the finance department could not develop such a policy due to staffing shortages in the data processing department. Without staff to monitor and enforce the policy, there seemed little point in creating it. Apparently this response was satisfactory because for several years no further mention was made concerning this particular observation.

What distinguished the 1990 report from the documents of prior years was that it was presented in a politically volatile environment: a new council majority elected in May 1991 had established, as part of its agenda, the total revamping of the way the town was administered. To achieve this end, city staff had to be discredited, and the Report to Management afforded such an opportunity. Although the report stated there were no material weaknesses, it did include eight observations and accompanying recommendations for improving the town's internal control structure. The council majority criticized staff for allowing these problems to occur. The personal computer policy recommendation received the most attention, and the council suggested that a staff shortage was not an adequate excuse for a lack of PC policy. The finance director assured the council that a standardization policy would be provided for council adoption within 60 days.

What's Out There?

The management information service (MIS) director, the purchasing manager (both divisions are within the finance department) and the finance director met the next day to develop a course of action for meeting the deadline. The first step was to ascertain the extent to which personal computers were used in the town organization. There were known to be at least 50 PCs, among several operating departments, running various applications. A survey form was distributed to all directors with the instruction that they take an inventory of PC equipment and software within their departments.

When the surveys were returned and tabulated, it was revealed the town had 53 PCs running from one to five programs, the most common programs being word processing, spreadsheet and database. The survey also exposed a situation of alarming magnitude: of the hundreds of applications which were running on the town's PCs, only a tiny fraction were licensed.

It should come as no surprise to any manager that computer programs are routinely copied and run on other units. Even the most ethical of managers believe copying licensed software is like driving faster than the speed limit: as long as you play it safe, it's OK. The problem with this view is that as more computers are acquired, the number of unlicensed applications grows almost exponentially until the department becomes a willful violator of the law.

It became all too apparent that there was more to developing a standardization policy than merely putting words on paper. The use of unlicensed software became an issue that Addison could no longer ignore, and the cost of acquiring licensed software for all the applications was estimated to exceed $50,000. In an effort to limit this liability, a meeting was called and attended by representatives of all departments. At the meeting, PC users were challenged to reduce the number of applications absolutely needed to conduct their jobs. As a result of this meeting, the number of applications to be purchased was reduced to 333 at an estimated cost of $43,000. The Addison Standardization Policy (ASP) for personal computers was coming to life.

The ASP

The MIS director had the assignment of assembling the policy manual, which comprises 19 pages and three major sections: General Information, Product Descriptions/Evaluation Procedures and Requests for Nonstandard Products. The major objectives of the ASP are:

* to standardize hardware and software;

* to provide flexibility to interface and integrate all personal computer components within the town;

* to assess the needs of user departments;

* to evaluate software already purchased by the town; and

* to establish policies regarding data backup and security of data files.

In addition to the objectives, the manual acknowledges that "the policy attempts to maintain a balance between autonomy of user division and central management of automated information processing." This statement goes to the heart of the personal computer issue. PCs have become extremely powerful tools that provide almost unlimited flexibility to users. The personal computer's greatest strength, however, also can be its Achilles' heel. Without some form of control, users can quickly find themselves jeopardized by the machine which was intended to free them from hours of manual labor. A user who does not back-up his or her data will discover that hard drive failure can destroy months of work. A secretary improperly trained for a word processing application can be wasting valuable time. The ASP is designed to impart a measure of discipline on PC users to make them aware that the personal computer is more than a glorified typewriter.

An important element of the ASP is the establishment of a Personal Computer Standards Review Committee, consisting of users from every department. The committee's charge is to constantly monitor the ASP and recommend modifications as circumstances warrant. The committee also reviews software applications and decides which of these should be made a part of the standardized list. The most valuable aspect of the committee is that it provides a forum for users to discuss common problems and share expertise. The many features of current word processing and spreadsheet applications make it practically impossible for any one individual to command a particular program. There is, however, usually a particular secretary who is especially adept at creating tables or an accountant who knows shortcuts to creating an amortization schedule.

At its first meeting, the ASP committee selected the initial software applications which would be placed on the standardization list. A percentage breakdown of these applications is shown in Exhibit 1. The applications--"Addison's Hit Parade"--are shown in the box below. Other cities surely have a different list of favorites. While the rapid growth of Windows makes it a good candidate for a city's standardization list, a note of caution is offered: Addison's experience is that Windows applications require a minimum 386/25 PC with 4 megabytes memory to run effectively.

The ASP allows for use of existing applications not on the standardization list, provided they are licensed applications. The ASP also provides for nonstandard products for specific applications (e.g., engineering), but requests for these products must be approved by the ASP committee prior to purchase.

The final version of the ASP was completed within the promised time period and presented to council as an amendment to the town's purchasing manual. There was significant doubt among staff as to whether the council would adopt the ASP, since it required spending $43,000 that had not been included in the budget. To their surprise, the council approved the ASP and the expenditure of funds with very little comment.

Epilogue

The ASP has now been in effect almost a year; and, despite the controversy which led to its creation, the ASP has generated real benefits to the town. By purchasing licensed copies of software, users received enhanced versions of the standardized applications. Also, as licensed users, they could utilize the help lines made available by most software vendors. Most importantly, users became aware of their responsibilities regarding their PCs. Just as city drivers are made accountable for ensuring their vehicles are properly fueled and maintained, PC users are obligated to protect and enhance the value of their computers.

Addison's standardization policy remains in a state of transformation. Having developed a list of standardized software products, the ASP committee will next decide on standardized hardware and coordination of software training classes.

RANDOLPH C. MORAVEC, finance director of the Town of Addison, Texas, holds the Texas GFOA's designation as a Certified Government Finance Officer (CGFO) and is a member of GFOA's Committee on Governmental Budgeting and Management. For more information on Addison's standardization policy, contact Moravec at 214/450-7050 or Diane Williams at 214/450-7070.

ADDISON'S HIT PARADE

Operating System MS-DOS Release 3.0 to 5.0

Spreadsheet Lotus 123 Release 2.3

Word Processing Wordperfect Release 5.1

Data Management R:Base Release 3.1 B

Business Graphics Harvard Graphics Release 2.3

Communications RealLink Cross Talk Mk.4 Release 2.0

Utilities Fastback Release 3.0 Form Tools Gold Norton Antivirus Norton Commander Release 3.0 Norton Utilities Release 6.0
COPYRIGHT 1992 Government Finance Officers Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Computer Corner; includes related article; personal computer; Addison Standardization Policy
Author:Moravec, Randolph C.
Publication:Government Finance Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
Words:1776
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