Category Archives: consolidation

– Downtrends in City Tech

Assoc of City/County CIOs

Assoc of City/County CIOs

MIX, the Metropolitan Information Exchange, recently concluded our annual conference in Albuquerque. MIX is a group of about 55 CIOs of major cities and counties. The conference is always good, not just for its presentations, but particularly for the hallway and brainstorming conversations about issues and trends in local government information technology. In this blog I’ll highlight some of the 2009 “down” trends in local government, and in the next blog entry, later this week, I’ll write about the “up” trends.

Some trends or strategic directions seemed to be common to all our governments. These included the need for executive support and leadership, the desire of our cities and counties to be “high tech” to attract tech businesses for economic development, and the need for a voter ROI or “voter return on investment”.

The “voter ROI” is perhaps the most fascinating of these trends, although it is really not new – its always present in government. Voter ROI refers to the need for information technology projects to improve the operations of city government and to translate into votes at the ballot box for elected officials. Just as the ROI in a private business is measured by the profit of the company, the success of a government is measured by improved constituent/customer service, and THAT in turn is measured by the satisfaction in that government by voters who elect their mayors, county commissioners and city council members. Not every project has a voter ROI, but at least some of them must.

Executive support and leadership for IT projects is related to voter ROI. Strong Executive sponsorship is one of the two or three critical success factors in all IT projects everywhere, whether in government or private industry. As MIX members shared their success and failure project stories, we saw that a CFO who was interested and continually supporting a new financial management system, or a police chief supporting an upgraded radio system, or a City manager supporting a consolidation of IT staff, are the key factor in those projects’ success.

Some trends are downswing trends – initiatives or functions receiving less emphasis and less funding. These include budgets, staffing of IT units, disaster recovery, “big” projects, travel and training. Every local government has been hit by declining city/county revenues and consequent need to conserve and reduce.

Last Friday I presented the budget of my department – the Department of Information Technology at the City of Seattle, to the Seattle City Council. The video of that experience is online here, and the budget is online here. We’ll be reducing our $59 million budget by $3 million in 2010 and reducing our staffing by 12 full-time equivalent positions to 205 jobs.

Other local governments are experiencing similar difficulties. Steve Ferguson, the new CIO in San Jose, reports that City has experienced nine straight years of cuts and reductions, starting with the dot-com bust which hit Silicon Valley in 2001. Steve Reneker, CIO of Riverside reports his City cut its technology staffing from 72 to 55 people and scrapped a VoIP project. Joe Marcella in Las Vegas has reduced his IT shop from 100 staff to 72 since 2002, all by attrition, along with salary freezes for executives and most staff. Other MIX members have similar stories, especially in California and Arizona where government in general is in more dire circumstances.

Besides staff reductions, about half of the MIX members are freezing salaries (at least for management) and furloughing staff for 5 to 10 days a year, which is effectively a salary cut. Most of us are lengthening replacement cycles for desktop and server computers and network gear. We’ve renegotiated or are recompeting telecommunications and service contracts.

Particularly troubling are reductions in disaster planning. This is primarily due to simple lack of budget because disaster recovery is not an “immediate” need. Disaster planning is one of those extras you never need until, well, disaster strikes!

Budget crises are a logical time to consolidate IT in governments and save dollars through standardizing, and at least one of our cities, Tucson has done it and one large county is planning a consolidation. But MIX members are also concerned about “de facto decentralization”. As the resources and people of central IT departments are cut, service levels will drop, and the line departments (parks, utilities, police/sheriff, human services) tend to develop “shadow” technology support. Employees who should be doing policing or running community centers start doing technology support because they cannot get adequate support from the IT department. Individual employees or work units start buying their own cell phones or computers. Individually, such costs appear small, but those individual purchases don’t take advantage of the bulk buying power of a whole government, or the efficiencies of standardization.

In my next column I’ll talk about some of the technology trends which are on the “upswing” in local government, including public safety support, cloud computing, social media (blogging, twitter, facebook), the “greening of IT”, and with a new emphasis on online services, accountability and transparency.

P.S. I also have the honor of being President of MIX in 2009 – 2010.

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Filed under consolidation, MIX

– My Biggest Failure – Consolidation

IT Consolidation and "Assimilation"

IT Consolidation and "Assimilation"

Everyone likes to tell success stories, particularly if the success occurred under your own leadership. But we all have failures and make mistakes. Few of us like to discuss them. I am writing about my biggest failure as CTO, hoping there is a lesson here for others.

I recently spoke to an IT consolidation retreat in Nashville hosted by the Center for Radical Improvement. In 2005-2006 we tried to partially consolidate information technology in the City of Seattle. It failed. Well, let’s say it was “less than successful”. And here is the “rest of the story”.

City government in Seattle has 11,000 employees, of whom about 550 work directly in technology and 215 of those work in the central Department of Information Technology (DoIT) which I lead. We have three service desks, three different radio systems, four large data centers, and at least six different groups providing server support and desktop support. We have at least five different work management systems, and some unknown number of document management systems.

On the other hand, we are standardized in many ways – a single e-mail system, Windows XP on all desktops, Oracle and SQL Server for databases, a single award-winning web presence at, an award-winning municipal TV station, one set of connections to the Internet, a single firewall, and a single financial management system and payroll system.

In 2005 the Mayor and I proposed a consolidation of technology infrastructure employees – about 100 employees would have moved from a dozen departments into the central IT shop – DoIT.

It failed. Why?

1. We did not calculate a return-on-investment and a potential cost savings from the consolidation. Such a cost/benefit analysis is essential to proving the case to elected officials. Furthermore, I promised there would be “no loss of jobs” due to the reorganization. I did this primarily because I felt we could re-deploy employees more efficiently to tackle a whole host of new projects. But I was also hoping to lessen the fear of change which is embedded in any organization, especially government, and especially during an impending organizational change. This is a dilemna – in difficult budget times, consolidation/centralization has a strong return-on-investment (ROI) and good support from elected officials, but the ROI comes from cutting jobs, which has a disastrous effect on morale.   Yet in “good” budget times, when jobs can be preserved, the support from elected and appointed officials is less compelling.

2. I failed my Mayor. Mayor Nickels made the decision for this reorganization. But I didn’t properly engage him – and his senior staff – in supporting and leading the change. Consequently many employees, department directors and others saw this consolidation as “empire building” on my part – an internal grab for power rather than an honest attempt to improve government.   Indeed, a Seattle City Council member openly accused me of “empire building” in a City Council meeting (he later, but privately, apologized for the remark).   That meeting is undoubtedly stored somewhere in the vast video archives of the Seattle Channel.

3. We did not get a consultant. Yes, there are many jokes about consultants. And good organizational consultants are expensive. But the blunt fact is simple: a comprehensive look at consolidation by someone outside the organization – a dispassionate outsider – would have greatly improved the credibility of the change. A good consultant would also complete a detailed cost/benefit analysis.

4. A labor union opposed the change. IT professional employees in the Department of Information Technology (DoIT) employees have decided not to be represented by a union. Many of the employees in other departments (who would be consolidated) are currently represented. Those employees probably would have lost that representation when moving. Although the numbers are small here – 35 to 40 employees in a labor union of 2,500 – there are larger principles at stake.

Generally, I believe in centralization of tech infrastructure functions – networks and data centers and computer operating system support. Certainly, we should have a single financial management system, budget system, and payroll system. Centralized functions are almost always more efficient, effective and secure.

In an organization our size, some applications support should be decentralized, for example, the software used to manage Seattle Parks Department resources and reservations is certainly different from the software used to manage resources for the Seattle Police Department or our electric utility Seattle City Light. Employees in those departments know best how to use technology to support their unique business needs.

Consolidations can be done well, as in Missouri by Bill Bott and Dan Ross, or Teri Takai in Michigan.

But achieving technology consolidation is hard. Although I’m proud of most of the work done under my technology leadership at the City of Seattle, I’ve had a failure or two as well. I hope others can learn from this. I certainly have the “scars of the school of hard knocks” from this experience!


Filed under consolidation, Seattle DoIT