How would you rate your IT budget this year?
Because we are a nonprofit, we are faced with tight budgets every year. What we’ve been doing to fund the projects we require is to combine realistic budgeting with fund-raising from local community foundations and donors. While this year the flooding in Cedar Rapids threw us a curve, we hope that there will be some additional support from federal and state sources to help offset the cost of responding to the flood.
What is the one technology that you can’t scrimp on?
That’s easy. Bandwidth is our most important asset. It has to be stable and reliable because it’s what allows us to run our intake unit call centers and case management and legal research applications. We also need the bandwidth so our internal users can access the information on our wikis, as well as add more information to our website, www.iowalegalaid.org, which is a clearinghouse for all our activities. We have upgraded our network three times since 2002. When we deployed a Multiprotocol Label Switching network in 2005, we replaced and reconfigured all of our routers. The following year we also added a Voice over Internet Protocol network for our telephone system.
What are some other technologies that help the organization stay productive?
Mobile computing has become a big deal. During the floods earlier this year in Cedar Rapids, we were able to recover our main servers and issue notebooks equipped with cellular modems to the attorneys. This let our people be up and running and back working in a matter of days. The flexibility from mobile computing also makes the attorneys more productive in the field when they are out in their service area working on cases or with families at abuse shelters.
The VoIP network was also a big help. The system automatically routes incoming calls to the next available support person, so after the flood shut the office down, when calls came in to the Cedar Rapids office they were automatically routed to the next available staff person at one of the other nine offices. There was minimal service interruption. The VoIP system also makes us more efficient under normal business circumstances because incoming callers get routed to intake staff much faster.
How are you measuring ROI on your most important technology expenditures?
What we’ve found in the case of the VoIP phone system is that we’re paying more for the bandwidth pipe but saving much more on our long-distance charges. We also spend less money on law books now that most of the legal research is done online, and do much less manual work at all the local offices updating data now that we have integrated our case
Another way we measure ROI is how it improves overall client and staff satisfaction. We routinely send out client satisfaction surveys to the people we serve and the vast majority are pleased with our response level. In addition, despite some initial challenges in adjusting to the new system, the vast majority of staff also believe our integrated intake system better serves our clients.
What’s your advice to other IT managers?
Do your best to stay current, keeping an eye out for what’s coming out next. We belong to various users’ groups that give us a great deal of input into the technologies we should be looking at. Mobile notebooks with cell modems are a good example. If we had waited on that we wouldn’t have been able to respond to the floods in Cedar Rapids as effectively. I’m not saying you always have to be at the forefront of adopting new technologies, but it’s better to keep up with the curve than to lag behind.
Pat McClintock is deputy director of program administration for Iowa Legal Aid in Des Moines, Iowa. The organization handles civil cases, such as landlord-tenant disputes and family law matters, for low-income families.