Category Archives: management of technology

People Live Horizontally but Government Organizes in Silos

Silos

Silos

One of my biggest frustrations with government organizations is their “silos of excellence” approach.

Somehow each and every government department or organization thinks it is a business unto itself, with little relationship to other departments within the same government, much less other nearby such as cities, counties, states, and fire districts.  Many Police departments think and act like they are unique, with little relationship to other government functions.  So do electric utilities (Seattle City Light), water utilities, parks departments and so forth.

People don’t live that way.   We turn on the dishwasher which uses electricity from the power company and water from the water utility and then wastewater goes down the sewer to be managed by the wastewater utility.   Then we put our trash on the curb for the solid waste utility to remove.  We get in a car which has been licensed by the DMV to drive on streets maintained by the City  and also County Transportation Departments (DOT) and then onto freeways maintained by the State DOT.  We drive to parks which we expect to be clean and safe. If we crash into something we call 911 and expect the cops to show up and ticket the perpetrator who caused the crash and we want the fire department and paramedics there to extract us from our crushed vehicle.

More importantly, many significant societal problems cannot be addressed by just one government function.  Crime is the most obvious, which isn’t so much a police problem as it is a problem with poor schools, jobs economic inequality plus inadequate support for healthcare and food.  Environmental issues are another example, where keeping Puget Sound (or any other body of water) clean is a matter not just for the “Department of Ecology” or “Environmental Protection Agency”.  Electric utilities (which often burn coal or oil in their generators), water and wastewater utilities, parks and recreation and natural resource departments all need to cooperate.

Our lives are a seamless continuum.

Governments are organized by departments each with a specific function.   The Parks Department maintains the parks, the police department enforces the laws, the fire department has the paramedics to help with medical emergencies.  The DOT maintains the street with the water and sewer lines running underneath it and the electric power lines running overhead.

This makes sense because there are so many specialist jobs involved.  I don’t want firefighters wasting their time mowing the grass in parks or electrical lineworkers writing parking tickets.

Why can’t these departments work together to make the services more seamless and efficient?

logo_minneapolis_311

A City with 311

Example 1:   who do you call?  If you have an emergency, you call 911 almost everywhere in the United States.  Everyone knows that and we teach our kids to do it at an early age.  But for almost every other service there are a bewildering series of different numbers you depending on what service you want or what problem you have.   If you get chased by an angry dog do you call the police or the fire department or animal control?   If a streetlight is out do you call the streets/transportation department or the electric utility or someone else?

Many major cities have cut through this crap by implementing 311 as a non-emergency number.  But most counties, cities and states have not done so.  311 is far from ubiquitous.  Seattle, for all its high tech reputation, is woefully behind in this, forcing people to squint through pages and pages of telephone numbers in six point font to get a non-emergency service.

Example 2:  information technology (near and dear to my heart). Does each department need to be buying its own desktop computers and software, and hiring its own employees to maintain them?   Does every individual department need its own financial management system and personnel management software?  The answer is clearly no – there’s nothing unique about the computers used in the water utility as distinct from the parks department.   In fact, there’s no real reason government employees need to even perform these functions.  Some major cities such as Minneapolis and Chicago and Riverside have outsourced most of this work to private providers.

This department-by-department approach leads to many absurdities, such as employees in a city garage installing light bars on a police cruiser, then having the cruiser driven to a radio shop for installation of two-way radios and brackets to hold a computer and then having it driven to a police computer shop where the computer is installed and software loaded.

Certain information technology is unique to departments – a Building Department has a construction licensing and permitting software whereas Parks will have software to manage recreation classes and allow citizens to sign-up.    But there’s also a lot of “enterprise” software such as budgeting and financial management and document storage which should be purchased and maintained separately, not department-by department.

All of this lack of trusting another department to do information technology, accounting, finance, human resources or similar functions leads to inefficiency and waste of taxpayer money.

So why do cities and counties set themselves up to operate vertically as independent departments?

One culprit is a department’s own view of itself as an independent entity with its own customers and customer service.  A public works department may become so self-centered that it thinks it needs its own customer call center and walk-in service center for customers and its own website with its own unique logo and brand.

Turf Wars

Turf Wars

Such a situation arises when department directors and senior staff are long-term employees who have outlasted many elected officials and collected significant positional power.

Another way this comes about is long-term employees in an IT unit or call center who have convinced their managers of their own importance – the department can’t function without their personal presence and unique experience.  Then these employees fight over turf – “this is MY department’s responsibilities, not yours”.  Government managers count their importance by the number of employees they manage and the amount of budget they control.  And the jealously guard and defend that turf.

But citizens rarely care about such crap.   They typically know who the mayor is and may also know their council member, and they want good service from their government, irrespective of the department lines.     Smart Mayors and city/county managers realize this, and set up strong, well-managed central services which are cross-departmental. Strong mayors confront departmental fiefdoms and employee self-importance, understanding citizen service trumps all that.   In smaller jurisdictions the city or county will partner with neighboring cities or counties to jointly offer better services with more efficiency.   Multi-city or county cooperation requires gutsy elected officials who are willing to give up a measure of control in return for better services.

But all of this – implementing a 311 service or consolidating a technology function – requires strong elected officials with a vision of citizen-centric customer service.

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Filed under 311, customer service, employees, government, government operations, management of technology

What IT Workers should say to their CIOs

who-moved-cheeseI’ve worked as a public sector employee and a manager of government technology workers for three decades. While public sector workers share many attributes and work attitudes with their private sector counterparts, there are also some things unique to public sector employment. In writing this, I was inspired by two recent blog posts by Steve Radick including “Ten Things You Should be Saying to Your Boss.”

First, government is, in the minds of many people, synonymous with bureaucracy. I’ve blogged about this before, but all large organizations, public or private, are painted with the bureaucracy brush. The bigger the organization, the more bureaucracy – and this applies to banks, manufacturing companies, the software industry and, well, everything where there are at least two people working together.

What should public employees be saying to their CIO bosses? When I was a CIO in a large City government, what should my folks have been telling me? And again, thanks Steve Radick for the inspiration for many of these. http://www.steveradick.com

1. “Don’t worry about it – I got it.” It is really great when, as a manager, I know an employee is going to handle something – take care of it, keep people informed and get the job done. Erin Devoto, my deputy at the City of Seattle and now the acting Chief Technology Officer (CTO) there, is a living, breathing, example of this. She took so many projects and drove forward to make sure they were accomplished.

2. “Here’s a problem – here’s what I’d recommend and why.” Some of my worst experiences as a public sector manager were “monkey transfers”. That’s where an employee recognized a problem or potential issue, brought it to my attention and then walked out of the office – transferred the monkey from her/his back to mine. But some of my best experiences were when employees recognized an issue, worked with their team to brainstorm some potential courses of action, and laid them out for a decision. Usually those employees, after the decision was made, walked out of the office saying #1 above – “I’ll handle it”. What a relief. I’m going to especially call out Mr. Stan Wu at the City of Seattle on this one, as he did this many times for me on projects ranging from fiber optic networks to radio networks and others.

3. “What can I do to help?” There are few better experiences for anyone – employee or boss – than being faced with a difficult situation, and having the team come together to figure out a solution and implement it. Willingness to proactively help address issues or problems – not waiting to be tasked with an assignment, is a hallmark of a great employee.

4. “Playing the ‘Angel’s Advocate’ …” I’ve been in so many meetings which go on and on as employees raise one potential issue after another with a proposed course of action or an idea. I used to cringe when someone said “Playing the Devil’s Advocate …” and then went on to describe some low probability stupid scenario about how a course of action might fail. It’s almost like the employees had a pool or a bet on who could come up with the most issues or the most unlikely scenarios to kill the plan. Give me an “Angel’s Advocate” – a proponent – any day of the week. And if it is a legitimate issue or problem with the idea, suggest a way to mitigate it (see #2 above).

5. “I just read/watched/heard … and it got me thinking that…” As the boss, I love new ideas, and with all the changes in technology we’ve seen in the last 20 years, such ideas abound. In government it is relatively easy to find ideas which haven’t been tried – usually private sector companies are first to adopt new technologies such as online services or mobile applications. Figuring out creative ways to use those in the government’s service to constituents is something every employee can do.

6. “This idea has some risks, here they are, but I’d like to try doing it … ” Government employees are notoriously risk adverse. I never quite understood that – most are protected by civil service or seniority rules or union bargaining agreements. Perhaps the risk aversion rises from fear of a newspaper headline or wasting taxpayer money. Frankly, I think bad bosses have a role to play too – ones who steal ideas for themselves or have a negative attitude about anything new. In any case, an employee who is willing to risk their reputation on an innovative solution can be a breath of fresh air.

7. “You know how we’ve been doing X? Why do we do it that way?” This one needs little explanation. We call it “paving the cowpath” when we apply technology or automate some business process without examining how to improve the process itself. Whether it be procurement or personnel actions or decision making or delivering a service, we should always look at the process first. This is even more important in government organizations where culture can be hard to change and existing business processes have very deep roots. No amount of technology or automation will materially improve an outmoded process.

8. “How am I doing?” Frankly, I used to cringe at employees who asked me this. Giving feedback – and honest feedback – is hard. Many employees don’t want to hear bad news and many bosses don’t want to give it. But regular sessions of feedback are much more important than formal performance evaluations. And, of course, the flip side of this coin is willingness to accept that feedback, including #9 below. And employees don’t need to wait for the boss to initiate such conversations.

9. “Here’s what I learned and how I’ll do it better next time”. It is hard for many bosses to give feedback to employees on performance. It’s much easier if the employee recognizes their own strengths and weaknesses and proactively brings them forward for discussion. This requires, of course, a high level of self-awareness, which is difficult for many people. (I had a long-standing employee who was totally delusional about his technical skills and abilities.) Going through post-mortems on projects and honest self-evaluation is important, and then vetting it with the boss is, again, more important than formal performance evaluations.

10. “Here’s how I feel about that … ” It takes a lot of guts for an employee to come forward to his/her supervisor, manager or director and give their honest opinion. The other side of this coin is that your opinion should be well considered and logical, not just some unsupported personal opinion. And it should be YOUR opinion, as an employee. I hated it when an employee said “And everyone else feels this way too”. Oh yeah? Where are they at? And who appointed you as the spokesperson? Of course, some supervisors don’t want to hear what their employees have to say, which is a subject for a different blog post.

11. “Yes, Boss, sometimes I know you’ll move my cheese … ” Change is a constant in any technology organization, or, indeed, any organization which uses technology at all. Whole industries are undergoing upheaval – just ask anyone in the newspaper, photography or land-line telephone business. Employees need to expect change, even in government, and sometimes it won’t be an improvement. But, conversely, the boss needs to explain the changes and the rationale for them.

And speaking of bosses, just like with Steve Radick’s columns, my next blog post will be about what the CIO or boss should be saying to Public Sector Employees.

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A 10 point Tech Plan for Mayors of Large Cities

Ed-Murray-Dively-Choe

Ed Murray (center), with transition team leaders Dwight Dively and Martha Choe

(On November 5, 2013, State Senator Ed Murray was elected Mayor of Seattle.  Seattle voters have thrown out all thre of their incumbent Mayors who held office in the 21st Century.  Here are my suggestions for what Mayor-elect Murray – but, really, any Mayor in any large City – can do immediately to use technology to enhance City services and improve efficiency of operations.)

Washington state has an extraordinarily robust tech community, anchored not only by big companies like Microsoft and Amazon, but by the University of Washington and an active start-up scene. Yet our city’s engagement with that tech community – and the technology used by government itself – are inadequate and falling behind other major worldwide centers of technology.

Here’s how mayor-elect Ed Murray can create a government that uses technology to facilitate citizen involvement and provide efficient effective services …

(Read the remainder of the article on Crosscut here.)

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Filed under 311, broadband, CIOs, eCityGov, egovernment, elections, fiber, government, management of technology

If I were a Mayor, what 3 tech things would I do first?

King of the Forest

Mayor and King of the Forest

If I were Mayor of Seattle, what three actions would I take immediately to improve City government and improve quality of life for the people living and working in Seattle?

First, I’d appoint a Chief Innovation Officer (CInO) to reach out to the technology and start-up communities in Seattle, harnessing their ideas and technologies for use in City government. The outreach opportunities here are endless, from huge companies like Microsoft which has a wide variety of innovative software solutions, to smaller companies like Cozi (an app and website that helps organize family life) andProsodic (smarter use of social media). Taking advantage of these technologies will help to build the city’s economy and promote locally developed products. The CInO would also find innovative ways to cut through the bureaucracy entrenched in City departments, and help them find new ways to deliver better, cheaper, faster service.

The second thing I’d do as mayor is hire …

(Read the complete article on Crosscut here.)

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Healthcare.gov: Why Washington State eclipsed Washington DC

eclipsedLike the Mariners’ string of depressing seasons and lost opportunities, this month’s botched rollout of the federal Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) healthcare.gov website represents a huge lost opportunity for the federal government. And some of the root causes of these two fiascos are amazingly similar.

Washington state’s own, separate, health benefit exchange registered phenomenal success, enrolling over 35,000 people in three weeks.

How can one state succeed where the federal government, with all its resources, cannot?

Read the rest of the article on Crosscut here, including 34 comments.

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4 Quick Fixes for the Procurement Dragon

Bob-can-we-fix-it

Yes we can!

Almost everyone who deals with government – internally or externally – is frustrated by the “procurement dragon”.  Procurement seem to take forever and are one of the most bureaucracy-laced processes in all of governing.   In these days of innovation and the flourishing of the startup culture, procurement processes seem to be an anachronistic throwback.

Furthermore, the convoluted purchasing process only seems to benefit large corporations who have the legions of attorneys and technical staff to respond to RFPs and negotiate the maze.

Purchasing practice is steeped in a web of local and state laws, regulations and executive orders, so they’re not easy to change.   There are good reasons for the present procurement practices, and I’ll mention those at the end of this post.   But first, can innovation and a culture of agile government survive in the present purchasing jungle?

I suggest four quick fixes, some of which are already in place in many governments:

  1. Direct Purchase.   This is a direct purchasing mechanism for small procurements – say procurements under $5000.   This would allow a department director or senior manager to directly purchase a good or service from a company without going through more formal purchasing processes.   A manager might purchase a smartphone app and associated database for use by field crews, or a couple of tablet computers for testing.  There still need to be limits on this mechanism, so I’m not issuing 20 direct purchases to the same company in a year, for example, and to make sure the vendor has a valid business license.
  2. Roster and invitation to bid.   With this mechanism, companies would be pre-qualified and put on a roster for bids.   A city, for example, might set up a roster for “web applications”.  Companies who want to be on that roster would provide a minimal amount of information – ownership, business address, business license, etc.   And when the city needs a “web application” for a specific purpose, e.g. to accept photos of graffiti from citizens, it could issue a simple, two-or-three page  “invitation to bid” with its requirements and allow companies on the roster to bid.  Typically these bids would also be restricted to procurements of a certain size, say $50,000.
  3. Piggy-back on an existing contract.   This mechanism is already widely used.   If a company already has a contract on the Federal Government’s GSA (General Services Administration) schedule, or the Western States’ Contracting Alliance  (WSCA – commonly called “wisca”), any jurisdiction which joins the alliance and authorizes itself to purchase can purchase at the terms and conditions specified by GSA or WSCA.
  4. Credit card.   Most government agencies give their trusted department directors and senior employees credit cards.   These are most often used for travel and similar expenses, but they certainly could be used (depending on local ordinance or law) for small purchases, again, up to a limit of, say, several thousand dollars.
  5. Budget.   As an adjunct to these four mechanisms, a city, county or department also needs budget to make the procurement.  Perhaps every department or government should have an “innovation fund”.

Using mechanisms like these, governments could quickly and easily procure innovative technologies, goods and services to help them become more efficient and effective.

Implementing these mechanisms requires a great deal of trust – trust by elected officials in their department directors, and trust by those department directors in their senior managers.    There are many cases where that trust has been abused, for example, by a manager purchasing good/services from friends or by making procurements and receiving kickbacks.  Examples include the controversy which engulfed recently appointed federal CIO Vivek Kundra in 2009, or these Seattle Public Utilities customer service representatives in 2012.  So my “quick fixes” for procurment also require diligent oversight and auditing by the appropriate authorities.

Finally, the present procurement practices in most jurisdictions are not the results of “bureaucrats run wild” with regulations, forms and requirements.   They came into being because of widespread abuse of purchasing in the 19th Century, where Mayors and other elected officials gave jobs to friends, contracts to cronies and similarly greased their own pockets using the procurement process.

“Good government” advocates instituted reforms such as civil service to protect most employees from the winds of politics, and purchasing laws which required specifications and open competition.   These practices still should be followed for major procurements to keep a “level playing field” for competition for the work.

Over the years, however, city councils and legislatures and county commissions have added twists and turns to procurement, largely to correct past injustices or for social engineering.  Do contracts go to firms owned by white men?  Then let’s add a provision for subcontracts to historically underused businesses (HUBs) – women and minority-owned business.   Are we angered by human rights abuses in ______ (fill in the blank, e.g. Burma, Iran, China, etc.)?  Then let’s add a regulation so we don’t  do any business with a company with business interests or a manufacturing plant in those places.   Are we upset that some companies pollute the air and water with their factories or other facilities?  Then let’s eliminate them from bidding on contracts (or have our pension funds divest themselves of the company’s stock).  Do we want to encourage economic development in our City (county, State, or even the entire United States)?   Then let’s add regulations to give preference to firms headquartered or with operations in those places.

I’m not saying these practices are wrong and should all be eliminated.   I’m pointing out that there are reasons the purchasing process is so complicated, and it will take a lot of thought and careful consideration to “unwind the maze”.

In the meantime, let’s implement the “quick fixes”.

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– Overpromise and Underdeliver?

IT Project Successes?

Information Technology Projects

Why do we consistently promise too much and then fail to deliver on information technology and other government projects?

The project mantra is clear: “scope, schedule, budget”. But how we actually do the planning, estimating and getting approval to start a project … well that’s the horse of a different color.

We promise the moon – “Project Widget will be the best thing for this department since sliced bread – it not only will slice bread, but will knead the dough and grow the yeast and self-bake itself”. Then, of course, instead of delivering sliced bread we might end up delivering half-a-loaf, or maybe an electric knife or perhaps a chopped salad. This problem: getting the project’s scope right.

Then there is schedule. Of course every project is a “priority”. We’re going to get it done in the “next nine months”. Why “nine” months? Because that’s less than a calendar and budget year, but it is longer than saying it will be done tomorrow, which is patently ludicrous. But nine months is also ludicrous for anything other than incubating a baby – and even babies usually take years of planning and preparation. Furthermore, in the public sector almost every procurement has to be done by RFP, and preparing a request for proposals alone, plus contract negotiations with a successful vendor, cannot be done in less than a year. And the schedule needs to include minor components such as business process discovery and the work of executing on the project.

Then there’s budget. Generally we’ll make a pretty good estimate of the actual real cost of the project. The usual mistake is for someone (fill-in-the-blank – “department director”, “Mayor”, “county commissioner”, “state legislator”, “grand phooba”) to say “we only have x number of dollars”. So, as the next step, the project budget shrinks to the magic budget number, while scope and schedule are left unchanged. And generally the “magic budget number” is determined by some highly scientific means such as the amount of money left over in a department budget at the end of a fiscal year, or the amount of money the City of Podunk Center spent on a similar project, or the size of a property tax increase which voters might be reasonably persuaded to pass.

Why do we plan projects this way in the public sector?

First, we are largely transparent and accountable in government. That’s really good news, because we – government – are stewards of taxpayer and ratepayer money. Oh, I suppose we can hide some small boondoggles, but there are too many whisteblowers and too much media scrutiny to hide a major failure. That’s not true in the private sector, where projects costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars are failures or near failures, often hidden from public or shareholder view, with wide-ranging and sometimes near catastrophic economic effects. Some public examples include Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner or the Microsoft Courier tablet (gee, will anyone every produce a Windows tablet?) The federal government’s project failures are paramount examples of both poor project planning/execution and admirable transparency with an eye to reform.

Here are my top reasons for project mis-estimation:

  • Lack of rigorous project management. Project managers are crucial. But good project managers are also expensive. Government doesn’t grow or pay PMs well. Too often we assign project managers as the “last man standing” – whoever is left over when everyone else is doing the work. And we are woefully short on training – usually training and education are the first things cut from public budgets during recessions.
  • Eagerness to please. Everyone in a project is eager to please a boss – the County Executive, the Governor, a legislator, a department director. How often do we invoke “the Governor is really interested in … (fill in the blank related to the current project)”. Projects need to stand on their own for business value, as well as be of interest to the elected official presently in office.
  • Jadedness. Knowing the budget process described above, we’ll often pad estimates – make the budget larger and the schedule longer, knowing they will be cut. Then, of course, decision-makers and leaders can also play that game, figuring there is padding, and therefore cut all the deeper.
  • The constraints of the budget and election cycles. Typical budget cycles in government are one year. Election cycles can be two years, and at most four years. Unless elected officials and department directors really take a long-range view, these facts lead to short-range think and results, just as stock price and quarterly profits drive the private sector.

And here are my top cures:

  • Hiring professional project managers. Frankly, this means, for large projects, we should usually hire professional PMs or firms from outside government. As a side benefit, such outside firms can also help train, mentor and grow government employees so they become good PMs.
  • Good executive sponsorship. The executive sponsor for a project needs to be the government official with “skin in the game” – the owner of the “business”, whose job may be on the line if the project fails, as well as the official owning the business. A smartgrid project’s sponsor will be the electrical utility’s director of distribution and generation networks. A computer-aided dispatch system’s sponsor will be the Assistant Fire or Police Chief in charge of the 911 center and dispatch.
  • External quality assurance. QA is essentially a “watchdog” on projects, speaking truth to power, and highlighting areas of risk and opportunities for improvement as the project proceeds.
  • Small projects and quick wins. If possible, any large project should really be a series of small projects with quick wins. In the case of a computer-aided dispatch system, for example, the smaller projects could include installing computers in police vehicles, implementing automated vehicle location, implementing a records management system, and implementing the CAD software itself. Of course there is no way to build a sewage treatment plant serving a city of half-a-million as a series of small projects, but most IT projects can be decomposed.
  • Transparency. Perhaps the most important component is openness and honesty for everyone involved – project managers being honest with sponsors, technical staff being honest about their workloads, department directors looking at their portfolio of projects and putting the lower priority ones on hold so the higher priority ones have the resources for success. The federal government leads the way in transparency, with its public “dashboard” for information technology spending and projects.

What’s amazing is that, despite everything I’ve said above, we get an amazing amount of great projects completed. At the City of Seattle, we’ve tracked all our major projects. Since 2006, we’ve tracked 77 project through 2,071 project dashboard reports. We’ve found that, when they are completed, 75% of them are within budget. Of those 77 projects, 32% have been on time and 57% have delivered the scope they promised (i.e. a whole loaf of sliced bread). Clearly this record reflects our priorities – budget is the most important consideration, with scope second, and schedule lowest.

Not a bad record when compared with Standish group project failure statistics, but plenty of room for improvement.

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