TML, VC3 partner to provide “TECH” answers at Conference

By Mark French Barrett
TML Research Analyst

This year at TML’s 80th Annual Conference, the league is making a special effort to provide our members with the opportunity to get answers on the most urgent technology challenges facing Tennessee cities: cybersecurity, disaster recovery, cloud services, and more.
Attendees will take advantage of a series of 20-minute breakout sessions scheduled throughout the conference on these topics and visit the centrally located TECH area staffed throughout Sunday and Monday to engage our technology partner, VC3, with any questions. 
TECH is an acronym for Technology Empowered City Hall and the banner for TML’s ongoing effort with VC3 to identify needs and offer related services to our membership. The focus of the breakout sessions and the TECH space are inspired by a year spent learning from city leaders about the needs in their cities.
Two years ago, our own office was looking for a new IT partner. TML chose VC3 because of what they’ve accomplished in their 20-year partnership with the Municipal Association of South Carolina. First we worked together to modernize our IT, address vulnerabilities in our network, and adopt up-to-the-moment monitoring of our workstations and server. We also hired VC3 to provide our phone service, update our website, and to build a new integrated database. After the success of these projects, TML approached VC3 about helping our members address these same challenges. The obvious place to start was cybersecurity.
Back in 2014, some of TML staff computers were hit with a ransomware virus. In that moment of discovery, when we first realized ransomware had taken over one of our workstations, we were terrified and confused about what to do next. Fortunately we had taken steps just months earlier to implement file sharing restrictions that mitigate the scope of infection, back up all of our data to the cloud, and have a process in place for disaster recovery. The result: we didn’t have to pay the ransom, we didn’t lose any data, and it only took two days to get us back to 100 percent. This is far different from the horror stories we read about in the news. Local governments are under attack in every state, and for each story in the news there are many others quietly suffering with the consequences of a breach.
With our own experience in mind, TML leveraged our partnership with VC3 to offer a thorough, affordable way to assess vulnerabilities in municipal networks and practices so that our member cities can prepare in order to avoid the worst consequences of a cyber attack. VC3’s security analysis culminates in a comprehensive report that prioritizes next steps and prepares city officials to understand their needs without confusing language.
We reported on the results of Tullahoma’s security analysis in the Feb. 4, 2019, issue of TT&C, where Tullahoma City Manager Jennifer Moody shared: “We are fortunate to have gone through this analysis. Cities need to prioritize the understanding of their IT structure. You have to realize the cost of recovering from one of these attacks, the lost productivity, the lost time, and the potential for lost data should be enough to encourage us to be proactive.”
It’s been very educational for TML staff to see the results in those cities that have participated already, and we’re using what we’ve learned about the status of municipal IT in Tennessee to develop technology services for member cities and towns through the new TECH program. To ensure due diligence in understanding the needs of Tennessee cities, in March of this year TML hosted a roundtable discussion in our offices featuring mayors and city managers from across the state. The discussion focused on how IT issues are handled, what projects are currently being pursued, what citizens are asking for, the role various staff plays, the use of third parties, and how the big problems are currently being addressed in those cities.
I was surprised to learn how similar the needs in TML’s office are to those of our member cities. We’re a small staff of 11 with a local server, hosted email, and some specialized software. Like most cities, we don’t have a full-time IT staff. Instead, one person on staff with very little IT training (me) wears the “IT” hat and works with a third party to meet our goals.
That was the case in 2014 when we were hit by ransomware: I didn’t know the value of cloud backups or why we should change the way we handled our data to secure it. Thankfully that value was explained to me in a way I could understand, and the solution didn’t require a massive new investment, just new practices to ensure our staff was using the tools we put in place to protect our work.
Knowing how TML avoided disaster thanks to the foresight and expertise of IT professionals, we’re committed to giving our members the same benefit through our partnership with VC3.