City Information Technology Budget Sparks Heated Discussion at Finance Committee Hearing

The Finance Committee of the City Council moved forward with its budget review and approval process holding the first of two hearings on departmental budgets Wednesday May4th.

The hearing follows a set, almost ritualistic, process. After a period of public comment, Councilors ask for department budgets to be "pulled," City staff of those departments appear and, along with members of the City Manager's office and senior City financial managers, and answer Councilors' questions about their budgets.

The issues addressed range from the trivial to the strategic. One councilor asked the Department of Traffic and Parking about problems with new quarters and parkings meters while another asked about variable-priced parking, based on demand, similar to that of San Francisco's SFPark initiative. During questions to the Finance department and its management of the City's cash flow, you learn that Cambridge, unlike most cities, does not need to borrow money to meet obligations before tax collections as it has sufficient cash on hand. But, you also learn, the City has issues finding banking vendors because, now that casinos no longer use as many coins for their slot machines, banks do not want to take on the burden of counting the City's parking meter generated quarters. You listen to effusive praise of the City Clerk and are reminded that she was the first person in the United States to perform a same sex marriage.

The process is, largely, amiable and collegial. Councilors take the opportunity to thank City staff for their hard work and recognize significant advancements and achievements. That mood swiftly faded when the City Information Technology budget came before the committee.

This winter, as part of her effort to get citizen input before the City's budget was assembled, Finance Chair Marjorie Decker held a series of to develop citizen priorities. These sessions, attended by senior City budget managers, surfaced a number of priorities, including the use of technology innovation to build civic engagement. In two hearings this Monday, Decker, along with fellow Councilor Leland Cheung, further developed this theme. Thus, when the Information Technology budget arrived without any hint of innovation as a goal, the scene was set for a confrontation.

For fiscal year 2012, the City plans to spend $3,737,380 for its Information Technology Department, a 3.6% increase over 2011. The Information Technology budget consists of that single top line, without the "statutory" breakdown into salary, equipment, and training and travel. The goals it sets are vague, lacking any clear, measurable criteria to ascertain whether the goals were met. And the performance measures in support of those goals are numbers without context (for example, "number of meetings held"). No performance measures, or goals, speak to a goal of being cost effective in the delivery of IT services. The separate capital budget does provide rough categories, but it also reveals that one of the servers used is a museum piece. The IT budget is, as this writer said during the public comment period, a failure in both explaining how the City the spends its money and assuring taxpayers that that money is being spent wisely.

Questioning began with Vice Mayor Henrietta Davis asking City Chief Information Officer Mary Hart about what could be done to improve the "silly" search function on the newly redesigned City website. Hart, apparently misunderstanding the question, spoke about the rise of an industry dedicated to improving search results, an allusion to the Search Engine Optimization industry. City Manager Robert Healy followed up by stating that improving search would cost in the six figures though he could not say which end. Davis pointed to the free Google search button she has on her own website and wondered if that could be used. Hart said that the search product they use, Ultraseek, was not one they were completely satisfied with but that it was "affordable" within their budget. Davis pointed out that seeing if a free Google search produced superior results to the commercial product used didn't seem to be a difficult, time consuming task and Hart agreed that they would look at it.

Councilor Cheung built on the questioning by Davis, talking about the work the IT department does as analogous to running 26 miles of a marathon, but not quite. getting over the finish line. All the rest of the run goes for naught, just like it does when you redesign a web site, build a robust platform for it, yeyt don't provide the sort of search function that people have come to expect so it's difficult to find things. "Given the level of technology proficiency we have in the City," said Cheung, "we are just not meeting people where they are." He pointed out that we have as a good a technology base as the City of Boston, but they've taken the extra step of exposing that technology to people and, thus, increasing civic engagement. He emphasized that he had raised these issues in the budget hearings a year ago, and that he can't find any response within the budget. Healy responded heatedly that Boston's record of innovation was public releations spin and that Boston had a $30 million dollar IT budget with a staff of 120. He was insistent that the City was doing what Cheung had asked for, noting a new pothole reporting tool that's on the City web site and an effort to put City's Inspectional Services online. He also noted the "planned obsolescence" of the software world, requiring that the City upgrade its financial and human resource software every two years. But, beyond this work, the City, Healy said, could not pursue every "fad" as it comes along.

Councilor Decker responded by saying that no one was asking that Cambridge do exactly what Boston does, but that the Council needed to know what the City's strategic plan was, what technologies it plans to adopt. She spoke of Councilors adopting technology because it was what their constituents used then being frustrated by limits they encounter. She observed that getting mad a the council when information the council needs wasn't being communicated to the Council wasn't helpful.

The Finance Committee approved the Information Technology budget and referred it to the full Council with Councilor Cheung dissenting. Cheung's dissent was the single "no" vote during the almost six hour hearing.

Later in the hearing, during the review of the Emergency Communications budget, George Fosque spoke of the City's plan for a 311 service. A large amount of technical work is being done to make sure that both landlines and cell phones route 311 calls to the appropriate place. Once that is complete, the service can be put into place. In most cities, 311 functions as a single number to call for information or for reporting non-emergency problems. Cambridge, however, will route 311 calls to an "automated attendant" similar to that on 617-349-4000 providing a directory service to further route calls.

The Finance Committee reconvenes next Wednesday to continue review of department budgets.

Cambridge IT Budget