Category Archives: budget

– FUD

Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt

For people who work hard to make government work, we live in frightening, uncertain times.   Even small messages and signals to the people who do the day-to-day work are important.

Recently we had an employee in my department (Department of Information Technology – DoIT, City of Seattle) whose card key was shut off to get to a certain floor after hours. It was inadvertent and an oversight – we were just trying to remove after hours access for anyone who really didn’t need it.  “Enhancing physical security”. 

But this employee immediately became frightened for his job – “are they planning to lay me off?” was the first thought he had.

Even small signals are important. 

I try to smile and greet each employee as I see them walking through the hallways or in work spaces.  I am very intentional about this.

First, I have a genuine respect and admiration for the people in DoIT – and around the City of Seattle – who make government run.  But also I just enjoy talking to people and hearing their stories. I know the first name of every employee in DoIT, and many other IT employees throughout City government, and I’m genuinely concerned about them, their families and their work.

Sometimes I forget, however, and I’m lost in thought, and I walk down the hallway scowling and forgetting to say hello. Employees can interpret that as “the boss is mad at me”, when, really, I’m just thinking about an especially difficult meeting I recent had, or a thorny problem I have to solve.

These are frightening times.

City government revenues are down, positions are being cut, and employees are being laid off. We have more difficulties coming down the road, and there is a significant amount of FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt in the air. All you have to do is read Publicola, the local scandal sheet (now known as a “blog”) to see the facts and hear the rumors about this.

Yes, I know that I and other department directors will be faced with more cuts and more difficult decisions in the coming months. I am really hoping that the next budget process will be the last time we are cutting and we can stabilize the government after that. I’m a “glass half full” guy.

Nevertheless I lose a lot of sleep and spend a lot of time worrying about these issues and the effects of cuts on employees and their families.  And, even more importantly, on the health and well-being of the 600,000 people who live in Seattle and depend upon their government for safety, utilities and quality of life.

My lost sleep is irrelevant, of course – if I’m not here, the facts of the budget situation are still the same, and the cuts will still come, but it will just be someone else making the decision.

So if I scowl at you as I walk down the hallway, please don’t take it personally. I’m just puzzling over that next difficult decision.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under budget, management of technology, people, Seattle DoIT

– Kurmudgeons and Kids

Am I a Mac or a PC or Bill Schrier - click for more

Bill Schrier: Mac or PC?

Oh gee, I think I’ve become a Kurmudgeon. Or maybe a naysayer. Or maybe just a Buttoned-Down Corporate IT Technocrat. Or maybe, and this is most frightening of all, PC – and I don’t mean “politically correct” – but rather the character played by John Hodgman in the “Get a Mac” advertisements

Bill exchanged his draft card for his blog - click to see more

Bill's Draft Card and Blog

But I know I’m anti-establishment, because I marched and protested the Vietnam War. I actually participated in a sit-in demonstration. I crossed a police barricade during an anti-war protest in Madison Wisconsin (ok, so it was St. Patrick’s Day, I was drunk, twenty-three years old, on my way to work, and headed to get a cup of coffee to sober up – I still “crossed the line”, ok?). Gee Whiz, I almost burned by draft card (oh my gosh, am I that old, that I still have a draft card?)  How could a militant activist plebeian, farm-kid like me become the ultimate embodiment of “The Man“?

What happened?

Elections.

Yup, we’ve had a few recently in Seattle.

We have a new Mayor, a new County Executive, a new City Attorney, and two new City Councilpeople.

And they are all younger than me.

Worse yet, their campaign staff – who are now working on their transition teams – are college kids or twenty-and-thirty-something young people who have all these odd and annoying habits.

They use I-Phones. Gee, I can’t even spell I-Phone (correctly).  We corporate IT types use proper BlackBerrys or proper mobile phones that fold out when you want to talk.  (Although I did give my wife an I-Phone for Christmas – does that count?)

They use Macs. Yes, Apple Macintosh computers – (not the Ronald McDonald type of Mac).  We corporate IT types use proper Windows XP computers manufactured by prim and proper corporations like Hewlett Packard with proper advertising campaigns, thank you very much. (My always-suffering wife is a Mac person – does that count?)

They don’t use anti-virus software.  Anathema! Heresy!   My Chief Information Security Officer is writhing on the floor. There ARE viruses which affect Macs, he says.  And how about all those I-Phone (I still can’t spell it right) apps which are written by hackers and can be downloaded?  Oh wait, I-Phone hackers aren’t trying to create bot armies, they’re just trying to modify the software in the phone and bend it to their will.  Gee, does that make Apple Engineers and Programmers and Executives Buttoned-Down corporate IT types like me?

These kids – they tweet and twitter and blog and facebook (is that a verb?) and post video they take with their danged I-Phones to YouTube and create legends for their innovative use of cell phones to collect last minute ballots on election night. 

Where is my defense from all this anarchy?   Where is my official City of Seattle Information Security policy when I need it?   Where are my guidelines for the use of social media like Facebook and Twitter and Blogs (oh my)?  Where is that holy grail of all Chief Information Officers and Buttoned Down corporate IT types – “standards“? 

At least I can take comfort and wrap myself in my reduced budget (Macs and I-Phones cost more to buy and manage) and my economic development (gee, Microsoft DOES employ 40,000 people in the Seattle area and it DOES, after all, make software for Macs, too).

They are challenging my policies, these kids. They are challenging my assumptions. They don’t care for my technology standards. They have taught me how to spell iPhone.

They are challenging my very identity as the Chief Technology Officer for the City Government of Seattle.

And I love it.

4 Comments

Filed under BlackBerry, blog, budget, iPhone

– Tough Times, Tough Decisions

Seattle Technology Budget Cuts

I just finished one of the most difficult tasks a manager can perform – making preliminary decisions on budget cuts for next year. This is a job which is difficult in any line of work, and more so in government for several reasons.

For one thing, there’s an expectation that government is stable and long-term in its operations and its employment. It has to be. Despite the situation with the economy at large, water and electricity have to keep flowing, streets and parks need to be repaired and cleaned, 911 calls answered, cops and firefighters dispatched. Most of this work is at the very base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – safety and security. The people who perform these jobs for the public expect to have security in their jobs and the tools they use.

Yet I’ve found most government workers are motivated not by job security or money, but by pride. They – we – are proud of the work they do, and proud to be meeting the most basic needs of the people of our communities. I’ve given employees raises and promotions, but, again and again, I’ve watched their motivations inspired not by more money, but with a kind word or e-mail of appreciation, or being recognized in front of their peers for doing a good job.

Certainly the legal machinery surrounding government – or, really, nowadays, work in any large corporation or bureaucracy – reinforces job security. Civil service regulations, unions, personnel rules, and other legal protections all reinforce the expectation that many jobs in government are “permanent”.

Making budget decisions is hard – we talk in terms of “cutting positions” or “abrogation” or other fancy words. But I know the first name of (almost) every employee in my 200+ person department, and hundreds of others in City government as well. It is hard to separate the name or reality of “services cuts” from the people who do the work and are directly affected.

Almost as difficult is making the decisions about cutting tools and equipment versus positions. It’s one thing to have people to maintain a public safety radio network or operate a computer center. But we also need to provide switches and radios and large-scale computers and space to keep those functions operating.

There are the other jobs of government – the public information officers and municipal TV channel, and support for arts organizations and the library, not to mention feeding the homeless and housing the hungry (and vice versa). All these are important functions, all requiring people, as well as tools and materials and other resources. Finally – and most important, perhaps – are the visible jobs of government – the people who run community centers and libraries, the cops and firefighters, the workers who fill potholes and maintain the electric grid.

Although my job is tough, and my decisions are hard, I don’t envy the elected officials who have to make choices for the government as a whole. Then those elected officials need to explain those choices to voters – many of whom have lost a job or a home themselves. And those explanations often occur during the heat of an election campaign, when emotions and misinformation abound.

Tough times, tough decisions.

Note: A few more details about the budget issues with the City of Seattle’s technology are in a recent Puget Sound Business Journal interview here. The Seattle Department of Information Technology’s budget for 2010 was authorized at $59 million and 216 positions – see DoIT’s and the full City budget here.

Leave a comment

Filed under budget, employees, jobs, Seattle DoIT

– The Translucent Government

Translucent Seattle - click to see

Translucent Seattle - click to see

Making government “transparent” is in vogue in 2009, whether by doing map mashups of crimes or twittering by Mayors and public agencies. But I often wonder if we’re exposing the trees, without showing the forest or illuminating the true ecosystems of governing.

I’ll cite one thorny problem which (we hope) is somewhat susceptible to new, web 2.0 transparency tools such as data feeds, mashups, and social media: exposing government budgets for public scrutiny.

Google has a service for “making government transparent” usgov.google.com although I can’t tell the difference between this site and a normal Google search except only Government sites are returned.

The King County (Seattle) government recently passed a measure calling for each agency to publish a line-item budget. This law isn’t exactly news, of course.

Some governments are going even further, putting entire databases or data sets on the web. Open Alabama partially accomplishes this as do Georgia and Washington State and notably Texas.

I’ve heard rumors of governments showing all their financial management transactions on the web, so anyone can see every payment made by the government. Some large cities now expose detailed crime statistics – right down to the 100 block of where the crime occurred. Others make restaurant health inspections, building permits, and a wide variety of other such detailed data available.

So I’d say we’re starting to get adept at exposing the trees – or maybe the branches, twigs, leaves, owls, squirrels, nuts and bark of government operations. But what does all this data mean, and how can it influence government behavior, budgeting and public policy choices?

Jonathan Walters, in a recent Governing column, talked about the ongoing attempts to link budgets to performance measures and results. As Walters states “This isn’t about looking for fluff in budgets, for waste. We’re already efficient. The question is, are we efficient at the right things?”

Ideally, we’d be able cleanly link all the inputs, processes, outputs and costs.

For example, we might know the Metropolis city transportation department filled 10,000 potholes in 2008. And they had four pothole-filling crews, each with four workers and a truck. We could gather a lot of data about costs, wages, time-to-fill, and so forth. Even so, there are a lot of variables, such as the simple fact that due to weather, pothole-filling crews can’t work every day, or some days those crews need to be doing snow-plowing or sidewalk construction. And then there’s the factor of executive policy direction. Every Mayor knows that it is relatively easy to get more potholes filled quickly – you just divert staffpower from building sidewalks or maintaining bridges to the more visible task of pouring asphalt into holes. But is that the right long-term public policy choice for Metropolis, or any city government?

The problem only gets thornier when we start talking about crime: how many cops do you have to hire to reduce auto thefts by 10%? That question is non-sensical on many levels.

And even thornier when we discuss choices – should we hire more cops or school teachers or put more money into public health or homeless shelters? Choices get even worse in times like 2009 where we are making decisions about what to cut. And notice I haven’t even talked about investments in technology or software systems versus any of those other choices.

We – government – complicate this all through little tricks such as “holding positions vacant”. A department’s official budget might show 500 full-time employees, but as a matter of fact the department might intentionally keep 25 or 40 positions vacant and then using the salary savings for other purposes. At least one quite large City of Seattle department has zero dollars for replacing its desktop computers and funds them through this method. But it is a widespread practice, as recently noted by Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene in Governing.

So is it time to despair on performance measures and data-driven governing? Hardly.

Traditionally, the analysis of this data has fallen to finance staff in government departments, or to employees in offices with names like the “office of management and budget” or the “budget office”. Even in the largest cities or counties, only a few dozen people actually did the analysis which informed elected officials who make policy choices.

Today, with databases and the Internet and the world-wide-web, and the advent of tools like mash-ups and Excel spreadsheets, all of this raw data can be exposed to hundreds or thousands of people who are interested in doing the analysis – on their own time with their own computers in their own homes.

Will they make mistakes? Sure. Will there be people who latch onto the data only to cast it in the worst possible light to impugn the elected officials currently running any given government? You bet.

But they’ll also ask a ton of questions, such as how pothole-clearing crews are allocated and what those crews are doing during snowstorms. Overall, people will gain a better understanding of how government works and of the management, processes and costs involved in running a government agency.

They undoubtedly will come up with suggestions for improvement.

And, who knows, in many cases they might even conclude many government programs are, indeed, operating as efficiently and effectively as possible!

Will government ever be “fully transparent”? Probably not, but as we get more and more translucent, we’ll shed more light on the problems of governing.

3 Comments

Filed under budget, egovernment, web 2.0

– Microsoft vs Open Source

Microsoft Public Sector CIO Summit - click for moreThis week is the Microsoft Public Sector CIO summit in that village named Redmond “across the pond” from Seattle. It’s also a week of continuing rotten economic news for public and private sector alike. In this environment, it sure is tempting to chuck Microsoft’s Office and web products and their complicated Enterprise and Select Agreements in favor of open source equivalents.

But you know what, the City of Seattle is not going to do that. Why?

Regular readers of this blog – if there are any – know I’m from Seattle and most of you know I’m a serious supporter of Microsoft software and products.

Clearly, I’m prejudiced.

Microsoft provides 40,000 jobs in my area, we have hundreds of thousands of shareholders (many of whom are also constituents) living here. We benefit from the tremendous wealth which has flowed from the around the world into Puget Sound to literally thousands of people, institutions and non-profits in the region. That wealth flows elsewhere, of course, too. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is doing wonderful things for schools and libraries across the nation and around the world. Microsoft research and technology centers are at many locations outside of Puget Sound – indeed there are about 50,000 Microsoft jobs OUTSIDE of Washington State.

On the other hand, all governments have budget pains. I got my first official budget cut memo three weeks ago (we’ve been doing actual budget cutting for at least 9 months). In the past I’ve had to lay off people based almost solely on seniority (or, rather,”juniority”). And I’ll undoubtedly be doing it again at some time in the future, if my job isn’t cut first!

Microsoft’s licensing costs are a large part of our budget, as are the maintenance and licensing costs we pay to Oracle, IBM, ESRI, and many other vendors. We do need to examine alternatives and options.

But I’m somewhat baffled that any CIO of a large government would seriously consider using open source software for our mission critical systems and services. This seems a little bit like using cell phones to dispatch police officers and firefighters or outsourcing your help desk to India. It will save money in the short term and work pretty well “most” of the time …

What is the advantage of using software from Microsoft – or Oracle, or ESRI, or Peoplesoft, or Hansen or … any major software vendor?

No business large or small would seriously consider writing its own financial management system, even though, with web services, database software and a spreadsheet program we could probably do it. We could probably cobble together a computer-aided-dispatch system or work management system from similar components.

The advantage of off-the-shelf or “shrink wrap” is that it is pre-written for us, the bugs are fixed, the upgrades are provided and – of increasing importance – security issues are handled and addressed.

Sure, you’ll say, Microsoft software is really prone to security flaws and attacks. Why is that? Because it is the most popular and ubiquitous software in the world! Its logical that any software which reaches significant market share will become a target for teams of hackers employed by terrorist-nation-states and crime syndicates. And the software for open source is on the web and freely available for such hackers to view!

Now, I understand that open source is supported by a developer community, and that’s good. But this developer community is nebulous. It is a difficult place to find when something serious goes wrong. Governments now rely heavily upon technology to provide critical services and interact with constituents. CIOs are responsible to elected officials keep that technology reliable and available. To depend upon an amorphous “community” of developers with no direct stake in your mission is a risky proposition.

Few businesses -other than local governments – have technology systems so important that people’s lives are actually in jeopardy when those systems fail.’ Sorry, I don’t want a “nebulous” community supporting my public safety and utility system.

Next, in an open source world, what do we do about application integration? Gee, almost every vendor writes their software to work with Microsoft Office, Exchange/Outlook and similar products. Even hardware vendors such as Nortel or Avaya or Motorola will make sure their hardware/software integrates with Microsoft. If there is an issue with the way PeopleSoft HRIS or Government Financials works with e-mail software or office software, they will always fix the Microsoft integration first. When a hot new product comes out – like BlackBerrys – the vendor will make sure it works with Microsoft software right out-of-the-gate.

Believe me, I know this first hand, since the City of Seattle was (still is) a GroupWise e-mail user. I had department directors knocking down my door to get BlackBerrys but the GroupWise version was released FOUR YEARS behind the Exchange/Outlook BlackBerry.

Furthermore, many of our applications now vitally depend upon web services for their user interface. Most of those applications vendors will not be officially supporting open source versions of web services anytime soon.

So, if we – government CIOs – move to using open source software, how do we handle the support and integration?

Answer: like everything else, we hire smart people. Highly proficient technical people who understand the bits and bytes of how this stuff works and can make it happen. Managers who can develop networks of people in other jurisdictions and in the open source community to fix the bugs, get the new releases and work with the integration. Skilled “open source” employees who are dedicated to our mission of “making technology” work for our government and the people we serve.

Well, where is our budget pressure? Yes, it is in revenues and budget dollars. But it is also in FTE – headcount. How many times have each of us been told to reduce headcount? What is the one number (again, besides raw dollars) which newspapers, the public and elected officials always watch and measure? It is “Number of Government Employees”. There is constant pressure – even in good times – to hold the line on headcount, if not actually reduce it.

And when we do reduce headcount, what positions are cut and who is laid off? It is always the last hired, which are usually the youngest, tech-saavy (at least on new software or open-source software), most connected employees.

With open source not only will we have to increase headcount, we’ll become vitally depend upon those new hires and that additional headcount to make our most critical and important applications work.

By making us MORE reliant on headcount and FTE, I think a move to open source software actually exacerbates our budget problems.

On the other hand, elected officials and those with budget oversight are much more likely to accept payments to our software and hardware maintenance vendors as necessary requirements. They all have personal experience with technology, if only their cell phone and desktop computers. They all understand the need to maintain cars and buildings and computers.

But how much of our core and critical work can really be “crowd sourced”? Do we really want to open-source computer-aided dispatch systems or records management systems which have personally identifiable data or arrest/911 call information? And I’m very nervous about open sourcing any part of SCADA (utility control), or traffic management or other control systems which are vital to our governments and targets for attack and compromise.

In these high-pressure, budget-constrained, headcount-hunting times, use of open source software appears to be a high-risk, low-return proposition at best, and a “government fails” newspaper headline at worst.

1 Comment

Filed under budget, economy, Microsoft, open source

– Sugar Rush Stimulus

Local and State Stimulus as well as FedgovThe Federal economic stimulus package is at the top of the news. Everyone is looking to Washington DC to spend our way out of a deepening recession.

And we’re all going to be disappointed. After the disappointment, local and state governments will have to pick up the slack.

The Fedgov can pass an 800+ billion dollar stimulus package (here’s a fascinating graphic of the package) .

It can be full of tax breaks and grants and “shovel ready” projects. And – hopefully – that will lessen the effect of this recession. But after that, the Feds will be tapped out. Because the $800 billion comes on top of a $700 billion TARP financial-system rescue on top of a two trillion dollar war on top of a 10 trillion dollar national debt. This “stimulus” is also full of tax breaks which put more money in the pockets of Americans and businesses. But there is no guarantee we’ll actually use that money to buy things and pump up the economy. Consumption accounts for over 70% of the GDP (according to the Federal Reserve) up from 62% in 1970. And consumer debt has skyrocketed – while personal income has risen about 500% since 1980, household debt has risen over 1000%. It is just as likely Americans will pay down their debt as opposed to “spend and stimulate”.

After the “sugar rush” of the stimulus projects is over, what can local and state governments do to address the frightening prospect of middle-class white collar recession plus 10% unemployment? We need some longer term, more sustainable programs.

I attended a brainstorming session with some City and non-profit leaders this past week, and here are some random thoughts and facts about from the “other Washington” (State):

1. Consumer spending may be down, driving down the economy, but people are contributing in other ways. In Seattle we had 130,000 people visiting and using food banks and meals programs in 2008. But Puget-Sound area people also have contributed two million more pounds of food to Food Lifeline over the last 7 months, and volunteerism to support food banks is breaking records.

2. In parallel to that, we’re seeing increased use of City facilities. Use of parks is way up, perhaps because people can’t afford expensive days out of town. Library circulation is up 10% to 15%, as is library walk-in traffic. Free public computers in libraries are booked all day, perhaps by job-seekers and resume-writers, but also by the homeless. Community technology centers are doing a land-office (as in “Hooverville“) business.

3. We need a local stimulus package. And the people of Seattle have continually stepped up to this challenge. Seattle-area voters have approved a number of taxes and levies over the past few years, which will pump more work into the local economy. These include:
•   Sound Transit. In November, 2008, voters approved a $17 billion expansion of light rail, adding 36 miles to the system.
•   Pro-Parks Levy. This levy passed in November 2008 and will fund $146 million in parks improvements over the next six years.
•   “Bridging the Gap”. In 2006, Seattle voters approved $365 million for street, bridge, sidewalk and other transportation improvements.
•   Housing Levy. Seattle voters have twice approved levies to create affordable housing, the latest one in 2001 for $76 million.
•   Fire Facilities Levy. In 2003 Seattle voted $167 million to remodel or rebuild every fire station in Seattle. In 2008 we opened a new Fire Alarm Center and Emergency Operations Center as just one of the projects funded by that levy.
•   Pike Place Market rebuild. This $73 million levy also passed in November 2008 and funds a rebuild of the 101 year old historic market.

4. This morning (Wednesday, February 11th) Mayor Greg Nickels will announce a further set of local stimulus ideas and projects.

We’re losing both blue collar and white collar jobs – construction and high tech and aerospace jobs. We’ll need every one of those projects above and even more initiatives to put Seattle and the Puget Sound back to work to move us out of this recession.

The bottom line is simple: the Fedgov stimulus is an important blood transfusion for an ailing economy. But the patient is very sick, and the transfusion will be a sugar rush. It will be up to state and local governments to keep the medicine coming until the economy regains strength and becomes robust again.

Leave a comment

Filed under budget, consumerism, economy, Fedgov

– FUD in Pugetopolis: MS Layoffs

Microsoft Layoffs - click for moreMicrosoft’s announcement today of 5,000 job cuts – many of them layoffs here in the Puget Sound Region – will send waves of Fear Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) throughout the Region and the Industry. While Microsoft sneezes, Government here will catch a cold.

In a word (or three): Uncool. UnMicrosoft. Un-Seattle-like.

Microsoft – like the stock market – always expands, doesn’t it? Microsoft dominates any endeavor it undertakes. Web browser leaders Netscape and Mozilla fall to Internet Explorer. VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 wither away in front of Excel. WordPerfect evaporates in favor of Word. Personal computers running Windows – in a very real sense – transformed the very landscape of American society.

In terms of people this is a real psychological shift. Microsoft is THE place to work here in the Seattle area. Young employees, exciting projects, bright futures. Spin-off, start-up and creative companies in our Region bask (almost literally) in the glow of the Microsoft sun. Microsoft Research attracts Ph.D.’s and smart people from around the Globe. But not even Microsoft Research is immune to the cuts.

For local government, tax revenues will plunge further as consumers and businesses rein in their discretionary spending.

We have a regressive tax system, heavily dependent upon sales and property taxes, with no State or City income taxes. While the real amount of money and wages flowing into the Region may not change much as a result of these layoffs, the psychological effects will hurt government.

As people in the region see that even Microsoft is not immune to the present economic troubles, they will rein in their consumer spending. “If it can happen in Redmond, it can happen to me.” Property values (and therefore taxes) have suffered a bit here, but not as badly as elsewhere. Those values will drop a more because of this. People will be less willing to buy, more willing to sell.

Right now – today – Washington State has a $6 billion two-year budget deficit and King County an $80 million one. The City of Seattle’s general fund budget was basically unchanged – $920 million in 2009 compared to $926 million in 2008. (See page 13 of the budget document here. )

But every one of these government budgets will need re-evaluation in the months to come.

I’m convinced that Microsoft’s dominance will continue. The personal computer, Windows servers, netbooks running XP, Windows mobile devices will continue to dominate the industry. (Well, they could drop the Zune just like they dropped floppy disks!)

Computing hardware will continue to get faster and require more powerful and functional software from Microsoft. Technology innovation will continue and Microsoft will be in the forefront. The bloom is off the Rose, but the Rosebush in Redmond still lives and will blossom again.

Until that re-blossoming, however, the effects will be keenly felt here in Seattle.

Leave a comment

Filed under budget, economy, Microsoft