TECHNOLOGY: Digitizing Mower Co.

Published 4:00 pm Saturday, November 20, 2010

Steve Groenke of Mspace sets up the county's new 60-inch flatscreen, part of the video conference system the county was having installed. - Eric Johnson/

Today’s Mower County is far more different than when it was started. Thanks to technological gains, the way people work, learn and govern provide a stark contrast to how things were 50, 25, 10, even five years ago.

This is the first of a two-part series on how technology is changing the way people in Mower County live. Today’s story focuses on the drastic changes in county government and classrooms thanks to faster, more interactive technology.

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Look to the Herald on Monday to find out how businesses and city government react to today’s digital ways.

Online voting, virtual conferences and online data storage.

These are just a few of the potential ways the 21st century face of government is changing to accommodate new technology. While the technology is available for sweeping changes, the public will determine how fast such changes will happen.

On Wednesday, the county installed what is perhaps its best representation of the changing face of government: a 60-inch video conferencing system. Without leaving Austin, county staff will be able to use the unit to attend certain conferences, meetings and training sessions. This will save a great deal of money spent on travel, according to Mower County Coordinator Craig Oscarson.

Technology could prove to be one of the key ways government bodies right budget problems and meets the voters’ desire for changing government.

“In these time of the public crying for less government, these are areas that are probably ripe to at least begin discussions on,” Oscarson said.

The county's new video conferencing system's camera sits on top of the system's camera during installation. - Eric Johnson/

The system was purchased on a grant secured by Emergency Management Director Wanye Madson, who will use the system to communicate with officials from other counties in the instance of something like a flood.

The court rooms also have video conferencing systems to save on certain travel expenses.

“You now can have virtual regionalization,” said county IT Director Jeff Kasak.


Oscarson said he’s heard futurists speak at conferences before. Though many of their predictions may seem far off, he said some of them are now nearing reality.

“If they talk about it, eventually someone does it,” Oscarson said.

Currently, there are countless possibilities that haven’t been enacted, but Oscarson noted change will come as the public seeks it.

Change, Oscarson said, will be driven by younger generations. Oscarson used his young grandson as a prime example of youth already being well schooled with technology.

“That generation is going to be so technologically advanced, they’re going to demand — and rightfully so — that we in government become technologically advanced for them. And I think in the long run it’ll end up being less expensive.”

So far, the need isn’t at the forefront, but Generation Y and the young people will want services electronically when they reach their 30s and 40s, Oscarson said.

“That’s the generation that’s going to make us be more electronic. That’s what’s going to happen,” Oscarson said.

One key example is online voting, which some people are vehemently against. However, the technology is not far off, and further advancements could completely change the democratic process.

While young people will drive change, more young people may become involved in government if the technology allows it.

Oscarson said young people may be more likely to vote if they could do so online.

“If you make it easier, quicker more affordable … you’re going to get better participation,” Oscarson said.

Public records and data

One key way for government to utilize technology is to make public records and public information readily available online.

“This world is changing exponentially technology wise,” Oscarson said.

Someday, people will likely be able to file their taxes electronically through the Internet rather than having to drop off or mail tax forms, Oscarson said.

For example, some county’s put geographic mapping information online for free, but others charge for the public to access these maps. Online information reduces the time employees spend helping customers.

People looking to buy a house may soon be able to look at the assessor’s records online to learn about the tax value of a property or information about past owners. Some of this information is already available online, but the public isn’t yet pushing for a drastic change.

“We don’t have enough people asking for those things,” Oscarson said. “It’s always the younger generation that drives change.”

With more data becoming available online, Oscarson said the county will need to decide whether to charge people accessing that information.

Kasak said the county has the means to put a trove of information online, but government leaders and the public isn’t currently pushing for change at an alarming rate.

“If you can see it in the public sector by going to a dot-com, you can do it in government,” Kasak said.

Kasak said he doesn’t drive such changes as an IT director, they come from department heads and the public.

The county is slowly shifting to a digital archive of documents and files used by employees on a daily basis. As more documents are digitized, the county is slowly shredding hard copies and freeing up space. Not only does this save on employee time of sifting through files, but it also eliminates the need for building space to store files.

Staff time

As government fills such needs more and more by offering such services online, eventually staff costs will be reduced, Oscarson said.

“What’s going to happen is over time we won’t need as many people,” Oscarson said. “I would say in 10 years we’re going to have 25 percent fewer employees and still do the same amount of stuff.”

Reducing staff time is important, especially at a time when many government agencies are having to cut budgets. If the county can cut a total of 32 hours a week in staff savings, that equals one employee under the 80 percent productivity factor.

Technology’s hand can already be seen in county employee lists. Technology has diminished the need for secretaries, so now the county employs more administrative assistants and technical support staff instead.

“In certain services, that’s the future of government: more and more technical stuff,” Oscarson said.