Monthly Archives: October 2008

– Tech Nightmares Frighten a CIO

Tech Horror

Tech Horror

Sometimes my job as a City CIO keeps me up at night. There are some pretty horrible things which can happen to the technology which keeps City and County governments running. Halloween seems like a perfect time to confront a few of our most frightful fears, and here are a few of mine.

Water. And Fire. Or Fire followed by Water. In my data center. The City of Seattle has multiple data centers, but our main one, constructed in 2001, has well over $15 million of stuff in it. Things like the e-mail servers used by the entire City government, or the disk array holding all our financial data. And about 500 mid-range servers. Our data center is in one of the most modern, earthquake-resistant buildings in town. But my real fear – and much more likely than the predicted 8.0 earthquake – is a fire or a gushing water leak. I guess it’s time to test that disaster recovery plan again!

E-mail Horror

E-mail Horror

E-mail. Gosh, e-mail is the most important application we have – more important than utility billing systems or computer-aided dispatch or financial management systems. We all get an avalanche of e-mail every day, and the City of Seattle’s great Postini spam filter from Google cleans out most of the viruses and junk mail. But it is really the content of the e-mail which scares me. Like that occasional email which says “hey, we’ve decided to cut your budget for xxx (fill in the blank) by $500,000 but you still get to do the project, on time, with reduced budget” or “oh, hey, Mr. CTO, your Wi-Fi network in the University District is down. Again. And the Mayor has a public meeting there at 3:00 PM”. The only thing more frightening than some of the e-mail messages is arriving in the morning to find that the e-mail system is … ah … “down”. And down HARD!

Tablet Computer

Tablet Computer

Tablet computers. Ah the great promise of laptops and tablets! You sit at your desk, and it is a desktop computer. You unhook it. You take it to every one of your meetings so you can view documents electronically, and don’t have to print paper to take along. You take notes using Microsoft One-Note on the tablet, rather than writing stuff on paper (and, like me, promptly losing the paper in one of the giant piles in my office). You demonstrate that you are “friendly to the environment” by personally reducing your paper use by storing everything electronically. Then you forget to back the tablet up, you trip on the stairs with the laptop in your hands, and it crashes. Into the wall. Literally.



BlackBerries. An extraordinary combination of the two most nefarious technologies known to humankind, the cellular telephone and electronic mail. Now you get to be available to your customers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The real killer is discovering, one September day, that one of my last havens where most cell phones and BlackBerries didn’t work – beautiful little Republic, Washington – had been jerked into the modern era (see blog entry Fossils and Technology). The Blackberry worked there! Arggh. The only thing worse than a fully functioning BlackBerry is one which doesn’t work, so you are out of touch! Arrgh!

Mayor’s briefing. You show up to brief the Mayor and his senior staff on your latest new hotshot tech project, hoping to convince them to make a relatively small (less than a million bucks) investment. But, as you walk into the Mayor’s Office, the Dow drops 500 points, Lehman Brothers fails, AIG needs a $85 billion bailout, sales tax revenues drop precipitously right along with consumer confidence, Boeing goes on strike and the room’s technology systems go on the fritz.

The Help Desk. So you call the Help Desk (206-386-1212 for the City) about any one of the problems above, and they fix the problem over the phone. Quickly. Efficiently. Surprisingly well. And you – the Chief Technology Guy – are really frightened, because the problem was “user error” and the user is you!

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Filed under BlackBerry, disaster, e-mail

– Budget Crunch Opportunities

ACCIS - click for more

ACCIS - click for more

What challenges do towns, cities and counties – large and small – face in 2009? I’m at the fall conference of Washington State City/County IT managers (ACCIS) this week. We’ve had a number of discussions about problems and solutions. But it is also apparent that many apparent problems have the silver lining of opportunity.

A common issue is budget squeeze. Washington State has a regressive tax structure – we have no personal or corporate income tax, so most agencies depend upon sales tax, property tax and user fees. Revenues are down across the board and every city and county faces cuts. At the conference – ACCIS or the Association of City/County Information Systems – we brainstormed a variety of responses to this challenge.

In many cases these are an “across-the-board” 5% or 10% cut. In some cases they are hiring freezes or elimination of vacant positions. I could write a whole column on this subject alone, but I’ll simply say this: if you are a government CIO or IT manager anyplace in the United States, fill your vacant positions as quickly as possible. Yes, you may end up laying off these new hires next year, but at least a hiring freeze or a unilateral cut of vacant positions across your government (both quite regressive tactics for dealing with fiscal problems, incidently) won’t hurt so much when you are fully staffed. In fact, filling vacancies rapidly at all times is good advice for managers of any government function.

Here are some of the “silver linings of opportunity” which these managers are actively exploring in response to revenue shortfalls:
•   Saying “no”. When your budget is cut 10%, you have to do 10% less work. You’ve got to shut down some existing projects or somehow reduce the workload. Does the CIO make a unilateral decision? Absolutely not – this is where governance comes into play. The CIO needs a group of line department directors or another set of business executives in City government to make the hard decisions about what gets a “no” and what work continues. In fact, such a group should be making such decisions in good times as well as bad. The opportunity: increased collaboration between departments on behalf of the people we serve. P.S. A “take no prisoners”-touch City Manager will substitute as decision maker, in a pinch.
•   Centralization and consolidation of the IT function within a government. I spoke to one small city where each department purchased its own computers, so there were a whole variety of hardware and software versions. This is an expensive, labor-intensive approach to IT. But consolidation of IT work and standardization of procurement and software are a great response to tight funding. The opportunity: improved efficiency and effectiveness in government.
•   Regionalization: I’m a great fan of work being done by the eCitygov alliance in some of the suburbs of Seattle. This is a group of a dozen cities who are working together to present some common applications for use by their customers. These include building permits, parks, mapping and now jobs/human resources. See more here. The opportunity: If more cities and counties could share applications and help each other out, we could cut costs and improve service.
•   Virtualization. Virtualization is putting many “virtual” servers on a single physical server. This trick not only saves hardware costs, but reduces electricity use, cooling costs, and maintenance. Wow. Talk about a triple-whammy opportunity!
•   Hosted applications. Governments have this penchant for doing everything ourselves. Has to be done with our employees on our hardware. But the blunt fact is this: we can use applications hosted elsewhere, via the Internet. We can implement much faster and with less expense. There is an ongoing monthly cost, but in many cases the other benefits outweigh that. Years ago the City of Seattle outsourced production of its payroll, and we’ve not regretted it. Indeed, the regionalization mentioned above is just a unique, government-based, approach to hosted solutions.

Budget Crunch Time

Budget Crunch Time

Budget crunch time is when we’ll be pushed to implement these solutions. Revenue shortfalls provide opportunities for IT managers, smart City/County managers and saavy Mayors to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their governments through wise use of technology. And the folks in ACCIS are just the ones to make it happen.

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– Awarding the Police

Seattle Police Foundation

Seattle Police Foundation

The Seattle Police Foundation’s annual awards banquet was last night, October 17, 2008. Almost 200 Seattle police officers and civilian employees received awards for excellence, valor and impact.

Speaking of impact, the “technologization” of law enforcement was a thread which ran throughout the evening.

The Seattle Police Foundation was created to seed new programs and encourage innovation in law enforcement. More than 90% of the police department’s official $213 million budget goes to personnel costs. Using those funds, Mayor Greg Nickels and Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske have launched a number of innovations using both technology and community partnerships, but funding for those improvements is still limited.

The Foundation is supported by a number of prominent local people and firms, including James Sinegal, co-founder of Costco, Costco itself, Philips – which provided Heartstart defibrillators in every Seattle police patrol car, and even two Seattle Police detectives, Randall and Pilar Curtis, who contributed more than $10,000 of their personal funds.

Technology was highlighted during the evening in the awards, stories, and video. Here are some examples:
•   SPIDER – Seattle Police Information, Dispatch and Electronic Reporting. This project has already installed a records management system (RMS) which is now used by officers throughout the department to enter reports directly into the system from laptops, vehicle-mounted computers and desktops. It will deliver a new computer-aided-dispatch (CAD) system next year which includes automated vehicle location (AVL) and new uses of geographic information systems. Three civilians and a detective received awards this year relating to their work on SPIDER. And the RMS training team of 30 officers and civilians received an award for their work training the entire department – one of the largest training efforts in the history of the department.
•   VARDA – this technology has actually been around since the 1960s – devices which send a radio signal when an alarm is tripped, a vehicle stolen, or when activated by a human being who is in danger.
•   SeaJIS – the City’s justice integration system initiative. Many cities have such initiatives which attempt to link police, prosecutors and courts to allow seamless flow of information about defendants and cases between the parts of the criminal justice system. In Seattle’s case, SeaJIS also connects to King County’s jail booking system and other outside systems. The project manager received an excellence award for her matrix management (“leading without having direct supervision”) of the work.

Other technologies mentioned last night and used by the department are too numerous to mention, but include BlackBerries, in-car digital video systems, red-light cameras (which have reduced auto accidents but are now in jeopardy due to Initiative 985 on the fall ballot),  and many more. Learn more about the department here

There are some interesting side effects of this wide-ranging use of technology. One is the amount of electricity needed in police vehicles. A typical patrol car is loaded down with radios, data modems, a fixed-mount computer, emergency lights and a variety of other equipment all of which draws power. Finding cars and batteries to support this is a continuing challenge for the City’s Fleets Division.

Another side effect is just all the “stuff” that a typical patrol officer has to carry. When I was a street cop in the mid-1970’s, I carried a weapon, nightstick, handcuffs. Now officers also have handheld radios, cell phones, BlackBerries and laptop computers – almost a walking Radio Shack!

In this article, I’ve emphasized the technology, because I’m a CIO/CTO and that’s the goal of this blog.

But the real purpose of last night was to celebrate the people involved – the officers, the police department civilians, those in City and County government who support them, and the wonderful sponsors who contribute to the Seattle Police Foundation.

In the end, it is not really the software and systems and techie gadgets and devices which keep us safe, but, rather, brave people such as those we honored last night.

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Filed under people, Seattle Police

– Hiring Felons

rogue.jpgShould local governments be hiring felons? Or, more to the point, should government technology workers undergo background checks?

San Francisco found itself locked out of its own data communications network in July after a rogue employee, Terry Childs, refused to share the password necessary to access network elements such as routers and switches. Childs had been convicted of aggravated burglary and robbery and actually served prison time in 1983, many years prior to his employment in San Francisco.  A relatively routine check of convictions databases by San Francisco would have disclosed this fact.

But, should local government technology workers undergo background checks?

On first thought, you might think the answer to this is, as expressed by my teenage daughter “no duh”. Of course such background checks should be conducted. Government agencies work in a fishbowl. Freedom of information act requests and public disclosure acts and open meetings laws mean that almost everything we do is subject to public scrutiny. Scandals and mistakes and incidents like San Francisco’s are front page news and sell a lot of newspapers and “advertising by Google” on Internet sites.

Government agencies should be held to a higher standard of service and scrutiny. We spend thousands, millions and billions of dollars. ($3.6 billion at the City of Seattle next year.) These are taxpayer and ratepayer dollars, not voluntary contributions from the public. We definitely should not be employing felons.

But, as in everything else, there is always a simple answer to any given question and it is almost always wrong.

So what is a “background check”? At its basic level, this is a search of public or law enforcement databases for convictions. Are we looking for felony convictions, or misdemeanors and felonies? A misdemeanor in one state is a gross misdemeanor in another is a felony in a third.

Does the crime conviction have a nexus to the work of the employee? In other words, is a conviction for drunk driving a reason not to employ someone as a database administrator? If I was convicted for possession of an illegal substance when I was in college 20 years ago, but have a spotless record since; am I unemployable in all governments throughout the United States for the rest of my life?

Do we search for arrests, as opposed to convictions? If I am simply arrested for drug possession, but not convicted, should that “count”?

Should we do a credit check on potential employees, on the theory that they may take government property and sell it on craigslist if they have a history of bankruptcy or bad debts? If a potential employee has racked up hundreds of unpaid parking tickets in Milwaukee should they not be employable in any other government anywhere in the nation?

Furthermore, let’s presume I pass the background check, keep my nose clean for 6 months or a year or whatever the probation period is, and become a “permanent” civil service employee. But then, 5 years after starting to work, I have an altercation with my spouse and am convicted of domestic violence. Or perhaps I have multiple drunk driving convictions. Or maybe I declare personal bankruptcy due to my inability to manage my credit card debts.

Should we (government) conduct checks for criminal convictions every year? Should we constantly pull credit checks on our employees? Or, once you get “into” the civil service system, are you home free for a life of working – and, in most cases, diligently serving – government?

I just don’t know the answer to all these questions.

But I do know this: if you are a felon, you need not apply to work at the City of Seattle’s Department of Information Technology.

I won’t hire you.

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– Budget Time for City Technology

Balanced Budgets in Seattle - click for more

Balanced Budgets in Seattle - click for more

Seattle – like most cities and counties – is now deep in the middle of its 2009 budget process. A looming recession, the housing crisis, decreasing revenues and increasing demands for City services are all colliding to strain a $878 million general fund budget. Faced with the need for “feet on the street” – cops, firefighters, clean parks, and human services – how will needs for maintaining and improving the City’s technology fare in this looming budget earthquake?

Luckily, Mayor Nickels, Dwight Dively (the City’s CFO) and their senior staff understand the need for investment in technology to support the “feet on the street”. Oh, you won’t hear a single reference to technology in the Mayor’s budget speech on Monday, September 29th (if you missed it, view it here). The Mayor talked about issues such as public safety – continuing to add police officers to bring the department from 1,241 sworn officers in 2003 to 1,360 in 2010. He discussed significant increases in emergency shelter, food and library collections. In 2009, Seattle will spend more money to create affordable housing than every other City in the State, combined. There’s $9 million to combat youth and gang violence.

While there was not a word about technology in the budget speech, there is a lot of action for technology in the budget itself. Seattle’s elected officials know their “on the street” budget priorities will require technology to be successful, and here are a few examples.

It’s one thing to add more cops, but each cop will require voice radios, laptop computers and digital video systems in cars, and this budget provides for those.

Seattle has one of the highest bond ratings of any City in the nation, but that requires a smooth-functioning financial management system. This budget provides for new high-speed computer server and high-end data storage system to run that financial management system and hold data for it and for other priority functions such as customer service and utility billing.

Customer service is a top priority for the Mayor – making sure Seattle’s people receive good service and fast response to requests and complaints. Mayor Nickels has recently implemented a customer service “Bill of Rights“. This budget supports these initiatives by providing for Constituent Relationship Management system software (CRM). We also will implement a modern electronic mail system (Exchange/Outlook) and other technology which will speed service requests and problem reports from customers to City employees who can rapidly respond.

As in most budgets and most companies, the bulk of the budget is not for new projects and initiatives, but rather for carrying on the normal business of City government. So my department’s $58.6 million budget provides $2 million to support the City website which won the “Best Municipal Web Portal” award from the Center for Digital Government in 2001 and 2006, $2.4 million to support a public safety radio network of over 5,000 radios which is up 99.999% of the time, and $3.4 million to support the top municipal TV channel in the nation, the Seattle Channel.  There is money for more commonplace functions like $1.4 million for a help desk, $10 million for an extensive telephone network, and even $700,000 for the technology leadership office (that’s the Chief Technology Officer – me – and my leadership team!).

There are a few hidden gems in this budget too – like connecting every elementary school in the City with high speed fiber optic cable (the school system pays for it but my department does the work). With some luck, I’ll be able to blog about these “run-of-the-mill” projects over the next year.

The City’s proposed budget is on the web here, and you can find the central information technology budget on page 543 here.

Is it a lot of money?  Yes.

Does it help make the City of Seattle efficient, effective and safe?  Damned right it does.

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– MIXing Cities, Counties, Web 2.0

A Group of Local Government CIOs

MIX: A Group of Local Government CIOs

The Metropolitan Information Exchange (MIX), an association of City and County
CIOs, met in Seattle this week. MIX is a select group of 55 forward-thinking technology leaders. Their discussions about the future uses of technology in government have been quite enlightening.

For the most part, these are mid-sized cities and counties, almost all with populations of 100,000 or more. These Chief Information Officers (CIOs) share at least one passion: making information technology work in service to the government and people of their communities.

Many of these jurisdictions have award winning government websites – Las Vegas, Riverside, Wake County (North Carolina), King County (Washington) and Yuma County (Arizona) each were among the five top web portals in eRepublic’s 2008 competition. Others – such as Seattle and Tucson – have top municipal television channels.  Still others have cutting edge implementations of a wide variety of technologies, ranging from the 35,000-public-safety-radio network operated by Harris County (Texas) to the Second Life experiments of Nevada County (California) to the City-wide Wi-Fi network operated by Corpus Christi.

Web 2.0 was the subject of this conference. All of us working in government technology know Web 2.0 is leading edge. But Web 2.0 is really “icing” on our government technology “cakes”.

The core, first layer of IT in government is infrastructure – networks, computers, data centers. That infrastructure has to be rock solid and operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week because local government delivers service all day, every day.

The second layer of our “cake” is the applications, built upon the infrastructure, which provide efficiency and effectiveness for government. These applications include mapping, utility billing systems, financial management, computer-aided dispatch and many others.

The third layer of our IT “cake” is a wide variety of ways government employees and constituents use the technology to request and render services or provide information. These methods include interactive voice response systems, television channels and the websites of our jurisdictions.

Web 2.0 is the “icing” in one sense, because it is so leading edge (for government). In another sense, web 2.0 technologies are the essence of government. Web 2.0 is about collaboration. It is about social networks.  It is about building community.  And that – building community – is what government is all about – collaboration and making our communities stronger.

How are governments using Web 2.0 technology? I have a detailed set of examples here (and welcome feedback with more samples).  Some highlights:

  • Some elected officials are blogging, but only a few regularly write – Tim Burgess of Seattle and Walter Neary of Lakewood (Washington) are two examples.
  • Chicago Police is doing a great mashup and display of detailed crime statistics by address or ward, around schools and parks.
  • Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, is making extensive use of wikis to improve information sharing among county departments.
  • The Seattle Channel is doing podcasting and interactive television with its Ask-the-Mayor program for Mayor Greg Nickels – viewers can call or e-mail real-time and there are video-taped questions.
  • A very few governments have YouTube channels, e.g. Mountain View/Los
    Altos California, although constituent video of local government
    meetings appears to be a more popular use of YouTube, such as Somervell
    County, Texas.
  • Some cities and counties have Facebook or Myspace pages, e.g. Prince William County, Virginia, which uses MySpace for recruiting. MIX, itself, has a LinkedIn group.
  • But I’ve not seen local government effectively use social networking yet. Fertile ground for innovation!

In short, we in MIX – and other local government CIOs – are concentrating on keeping the core of information technology networks and systems running well in our governments.  And we are experimenting with a wide variety of Web 2.0 and similar technologies which we know will make government more collaborative and interactive.

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Filed under egovernment, eRepublic, future of technology, MIX, NATOA, seattle channel, web 2.0