Newswise — Rowan University (Glassboro, N.J.) Rohrer College of Business students are busy playing matchmaker.

Rather than introducing single people to Mr. or Ms. Right, they are helping to connect Camden County municipalities and other government agencies with neighbors via the innovative project.

A multi-phase initiative, AskGovFirst is designed to meet several needs, including expanding cross-governmental communication and sharing equipment and services.

Management information systems majors Roy Douber and Phil Collis, working with professors Drs. Daniel McFarland and Jennifer Nicholson, are assisting the county in developing the project, which county officials are initiating with several municipalities, a school district and a fire district.

Think of it like a for local governments.

Town A has a backhoe, which Town B needs. Town B has an engineer on staff, and Town C needs such a professional for a short-term project.

Officials in those towns will be able to tap into a database being developed by the Rowan team, find out which other towns in the county have what they need and, for an agreed-upon fee or trade, “purchase” the goods or service. Town B gets access to a backhoe — which it may only have to use four times a year — without having to lay out the full price for the equipment, the training for the employees and the maintenance. Town C can retain an engineer already vetted by a neighboring community at a lower per-project cost than a private firm could offer.

AskGovFirst is the brainchild of Gary Passanante, director of the Division of Shared Services and mayor of Somerdale, and Gina Marie Santore, assistant director. Freeholder Ian Leonard is liaison to the Division of Shared Services, which was formed in 2006 to provide technical assistance and facilitate discussions between government units interested in sharing similar services.

“There is a gaping hole in what we do because we tend to be on our own little islands,” Passanante said.

AskGovFirst will mitigate that.

“The main goal with AskGovFirst is to foster cross-governmental communication,” Santore said.

“The heart of the project is to provide local governments with an employee directory, which will have a government social networking aspect where people will be able to come together, interact and discuss government issues within a logged-in, private system,” explained Fair Lawn resident Douber, 23, who with Collis serves as co-project manager of a team that also includes two Rowan student graphic designers who will aid in the layout design of the site.

Sharing is right up there with communication as a priority.

Leonard said of AskGovFirst, “It’s a bartering system. How can we help you? What resources do you have to help us? It’s like the Craigslist of government.”

The municipalities of Barrington, Pennsauken, Voorhees and Woodlynne, along with the Bellmawr School District, Winslow Fire Department and Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, have been chosen as part of the pilot program. Santore said they are all progressive entities. “They are already at the table in many ways,” she noted. The pilot will last from six months to a year before being rolled out countywide.

While there already is sharing going on in Camden County, especially among public works personnel, Passanante said AskGovFirst would formalize the arrangement and take it a step further.

“Sharing equipment is just apiece of the puzzle,” he said. “With the two-percent cap (on tax increases) we as mayors have to think outside of the box. This transcends just trading equipment. It’s a new mindset — sharing information, budgets, job openings. We need to be proactive in finding connections between towns. You can’t wait until it’s an emergency.”

The Rowan team is helping them do that. Douber and Collis, 24, of Clayton, have been meeting with county officials since December 2010, gathering officials’ input through at least 10 meetings.

“It has been a great opportunity to be involved with this project and to work with both Gary and Gina,” Collis said. “Working within government has been a new experience for us; it has allowed us to learn more about its inner workings and how it functions. By furthering our understanding of local government, we were able to optimize the design and development of the project for its usage by Camden County Shared Services.” In addition to planning the project and developing the database, the team also is designing the AskGovFirst website. The students, doing the work for their capstone class, will provide the county with a prototype website that eventually also will include a government directory, an events calendar, an RSS feed for local news, discussion forums, listserv capabilities and bios on people whose services are available.

Passanante estimated the Rowan team is saving the county tens of thousands of dollars in developing the system. “They are the perfect resource because they are out there on the cutting edge and they have not been influenced by the status quo,” he said.

That’s not new for Rowan’s Rohrer College of Business; each semester students take on pro-bono projects for businesses, government offices and non-profit organizations as part of the College’s project-based learning efforts. Project-based learning not only helps organizations, it also provides Rowan students with hands-on experience that they will take into the job market.

“They now have a portfolio of real products, a real project they’ve worked on,” McFarland said. “This project is particularly interesting in that it involves local governments. There are a lot more complexities.”

"Our MIS students are very talented, and having the opportunity to work on a real-world project is a priceless experience," Nicholson said.

Eventually their work may go statewide — and further.

Douber noted that while the website is being created for Camden County, in the future it may be replicated in other counties that wish to adopt the system.

That’s one of the goals of Camden County officials. While they are leading the way with the project, they hope eventually to make a turnkey version available to colleagues around the state and maybe across the country.

Said Passanante, “I’ve talked to people across the state who said if you can pull this off this is a model that can work in every county.”

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