The most depressing part of the budget: poor DIT

As I’m sure you guys are all aware, this afternoon the City Council will be holding a special budget meeting to address the shortfall in the City’s current year budget. But the fun doesn’t end there! After the budget meeting, we’ve got the regular Council meeting (PDF) to look forward to. Thankfully, the agenda is relatively short and looks like it won’t go too long, although you really never can tell.

Anyway, there’s some exciting stuff buried in there. Of particular note is the decidedly unsexy sounding, but incredibly important and long overdue upgrade of the City’s radio technology (PDF) so that our emergency services will be able to communicate with emergency services in other Cities and the County.

Perhaps you recall the announcement of this initiative back in September 2007 (apologies for having to link to the city across the Bay – a link for our version remains on the Mayor’s website, but is, of course, broken). The idea is to make it so, in an emergency, like if there’s a huge earthquake or something, public safety agencies all over the Bay Area will be able to talk to one another.

It’s expensive, but clearly necessary. And who is in charge of managing this upgrade that ensures we’ll all be safer in the earthquake? Why, it’s our lovely Department of Information Technology! Yay, IT. Look at how much good they do for us with their fancy skills and ability to understand the technical details of things like 800 MHz digital trunked radio systems and P-25 voice interoperability upgrades! How should we thank them and make sure this vital bit of infrastructure get deployed as quickly and smoothly as possible? I have a great idea how! Let’s slash their budget!

So, the City didn’t actually have a centralized Department of Information Technology until the adoption of the FY07-09 budget, when the Mayor decided to consolidate IT positions from all the different departments into one department. (Note: I am referring only to the relatively immediate past.) This took IT positions previously assigned to specific departments and put them all under one umbrella. So, for example, the Fire Department and Parks and Recreation used to have their own IT people who were budgeted specifically to those departments, and as of the Mayor’s first budget, those positions no longer belonged to Fire Department or Parks and Recreation, and instead became part of the Department of Information Technology.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to such a move. I personally think it was a terrible idea, but what’s done is done, so the reasons why are not really worth getting into now. The Mayor’s rationale for the reorganization, as explained in the FY07-09 budget transmittal letter, was as follows:

A centralized Department of Information Technology will facilitate the City’s goal of effectively using technology to improve operations and provide improved service. This new department’s goal is to put technology to its maximum use in order to improve the execution of City programs and services. The Department of Information Technology will work collaboratively with other City departments to align business and technology objectives and to implement cost-effective solutions that enhance business transactions with the City’s internal and external customers.

So I guess that was the idea, and maybe, in a better run City, all those good things described above would have been the result of creating a single, unified IT Department. But for Oakland, as far as I can tell, the only thing it accomplished was that it made IT easier to cut because now nobody has to think about the relationship of IT and service delivery.

How easy, you ask? Well, IT, in the adopted FY07-08 budget, was assigned 100 FTE. In October of 2008, that got cut down to 86 FTE. IT took another hit in the FY09-11 budget adopted last June, going down to 80 FTE. And then, another when the budget was later amended, down to 76 FTE for FY10-11. And guess what we’ve got in the staff recommendation for adjustments at this afternoon’s meeting? That’s right, more IT cuts. Another 3 positions, in fact.

Here are the positions proposed to be cut from IT, and the impacts, as delineated in the agenda report (PDF)

Delete Microcomputer Systems Specialist 1: There would be significant delay in replacing and or troubleshooting damaged software or hardware for computer equipment citywide. Documentation of computer equipment inventory would be affected as well.

Delete Microcomputer Systems Specialist I: There would be a significant and severe delay in the response to failures on systems used by the Libraries and the Museum which would negatively impact downtime. There would also be significant delay in computer replacements and on troubleshooting damaged computer equipment.

Delete Microcomputer Systems Specialist III: There would be significant delay on the response to network related issues. Daily logs would not be monitored as frequent as they should be, possibly on a weekly rotation. Coordination of network services related to relocation of staff and office rearrangements would be delayed significantly as well.

So, yeah, I guess the radio people are safe for the moment, but seriously – when is this going to end? The City’s budget problems are not going away anytime soon, and the cuts are just going to keep coming. Given that, technology is probably just about the worst place to make cuts. Technology allows us to work more efficiently! It is the key to doing more with less. It totally eludes my comprehension why the Council just doesn’t seem to get that.

It’s like, their whole mindset is “Well, nobody is lining up at the podium to speak against crippling the IT Department, therefore it’s okay to do.” I just don’t get it. I was complaining to a friend who works at the City the other day about how terrible the proposed IT cuts were, and their response was like “What are you talking about? I thought the positions they wanted to take away were just people who fix computers when they’re broken.” Jesus! Yes, computers break, they need to be fixed! In what universe is it acceptable to just say it’s okay that we aren’t going to fix them in a timely manner?

The lone exception to this mindset is, no surprise, the youngest member of the Council. At-Large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, bless her heart, keeps trying to hammer into her colleagues’ thick heads the importance of technology at every single one of these stupid and pointless budget meetings. Sadly, her pleas seem to perpetually fall on deaf ears and one vote out of eight is not enough to protect IT.)

This is a terrible problem with the Council. They look at everything from a PR perspective, rather than a public service perspective. They’re happy as long as they can say that oh, they’re not cutting services because they didn’t take any more money from parks, or libraries (the library has already been cut to the legal minimum, BTW), or whatever it is people show up in droves to advocate for. But lack of technical support severely impedes the ability of already strapped departments to deliver services to the public. Cutting IT is a service cut, whether or not you say so your ridiculously long weekly newsletter.

The whole thing just makes me really sad.

27 thoughts on “The most depressing part of the budget: poor DIT

  1. V Smoothe Post author

    Oh, and if you’re interested in the meeting but can’t be there or watch along at home for whatever reason, I will be posting updates on Twitter. For my updates, visit http://twitter.com/Vsmoothe. I haven’t asked any of them about their plans for tonight, but much of the time, you can also get Oakland meeting tweets from MaxAllstadt, das88, OaklandBecks, Jawnie, and dto510. The easiest way to see everyone’s updates is to go to http://twitter.com/#search?q=%23oakmtg. This will show all the tweets people have posted that they have marked with the #oakmtg hashtag.

  2. livegreen

    Cut salaries, keep services. & in future negotiate into contracts the option of budget cuts if economy & revenues fall. Having these hand-cuffs on a City in down-times is ridiculous, especially as the public sector made out so well during the boom.

    The SEIU and OPOA are all take and no give. I know not all individual public servants are because this blog is run by one, and I’ve spoken to others who are willing to give back as long as it’s reasonable.

  3. David

    Outlaw public sector unions.
    Even the patron saint of welfare-state Democrats, FDR, didn’t approve of public-sector unions.

    That’s the long-term solution.

  4. Max Allstadt

    Delete Microcomputer Systems Specialist 1? No! Command-Z!

    This is a horrible plan. For starters, I believe that agreements with the union mandate that the most junior employees get the axe first. In the field of IT, that often means that the youngest employees with the best command of the newest tech.

    The older councilmembers might be thinking “well, we just updated the city website, we can probably do without as much IT for a while”. But of course this doesn’t take into account that the website update just took a site that looked 15 years out of date and made it look 8 years out of date.

    Bad idea, council. Very very not OK.

  5. len raphael

    cutting but then outsourcing all the computer support might be an improvement in service and save money. but no, cc thinks they can get by simply cutting.

    outsourcing communications support is inviting disaster. lets make special note of the cc members who recommend cutting communications jobs. engrave their names on the side of the Chiodo Creature which doubtless will survive the big one even as our public safety staff lose communications.

    -len raphael
    temescal

  6. Max Allstadt

    Does that Charter provision not apply to the City Attorney’s office? Because the council keeps cutting the City Attorney’s staff, and then when they realize they need more legal representation than they can handle in-house, they outsource. It happens a lot.

  7. dto510

    How are people supposed to use the library’s public computers if there’s nobody to fix them? The library’s public computers provide an extremely important service to job-seekers and people without home computers, helping to close the digital divide and to hook citizens up with services. Remember the chaos last year when the City accepted Housing Authority applications exclusively via the Internet and the Main Library was overwhelmed by literally thousands of people trying to use their computers?

    Tech support for the library is an absolutely crucial and basic city service. It’s very disappointing that the City would even consider ending maintenance for its extremely well-used public computers.

  8. Chris Kidd

    David, I’m still debating whether you’re a troll or not. You manage to stay juuuuust enough on topic not to get written off. As long as we’re talking about outlawing all public sector unions, let’s talk about cloning unicorns and growing a money tree.

  9. V Smoothe Post author

    There are nuances to the charter prohibition that aren’t really worth getting into here – maybe in a full post at some point in the future. But in general, outsourcing City services in order to save money is not possible. If people want to change that, they are welcome to try to put a Charter Amendment on the ballot and battle the unions to pass it. Good luck with that.

  10. DontBotherDelores

    My council member has indeed suggested growing a money tree, Chris Kidd so if you are suggesting something as impossible, please stick to unicorns.

  11. Ralph

    Bruce Nye did some nail hitting. Identify the core funtions and prioritize the cuts and eliminate the fringe activities. I do love that a numbre of speakers speak of revisiting ballot measure and praise the “compromise” on M2O. If all ballot measures are open, it seems to me that M2O should be up for discussion.

    I like unions, but the city unions are killing me. The planner makes a point. The head of the department is taking a short-term money approach while ignoring the long-term impacts. Our leadership is truly failing us.

    Hope to dig into the details of this budget at some point, but it would be a lot easier if someone would do as Bruce and others have indicated – identify the core services which we need to provide and balance the short-term budget needs with the long-term viability of the city.

  12. David

    Well, Chris, as long as the buffoons in charge of Oakland think there is a money tree, and there’s no problem here that can’t be “solved” by raising taxes and cutting services, I can dream a little dream too of outlawing public sector unions. When $40+M of the city budget is devoted to benefits private sector workers can only dream of, there’s something wrong here.

    I like how you don’t state my idea is a bad one, just perhaps impractical. Well, public sectors unions used to not exist, as they weren’t legal. Then JFK changed the rule by executive fiat, not even a democratic process. If JFK can change the rule by executive fiat, someone/some people can change it back.

    You think I’m a troll? Or are you just bewildered that someone actually has lived in the Bay Area for over a dozen years (and has 3 more generations of family who lived here) can actually cultivate a non-conformist (read: non-”liberal”) attitude? And an “underprivileged” minority to boot?! Goodness. Just shattering all your stereotypes, aren’t we.

    And City Charter forbids something? So, change it.

  13. CitizenX

    This is all part of the natural cycle of Municipal Myopia. When it comes time for cuts, short-sighted management and politicians ALWAYS go after the administrative departments — IT, HR, Finance, etc. This way, they avoid layoffs of employees who provide direct services to the public. The provision of those direct services slows, because there’s noone to fix the computers, recruit for open positions, etc.

    Phase two of the cycle — departments realize they need these internal services to survive and go out and hire their own Microcomputer Specialists. After a time, the municipality once again has a full complement of MS’s, only, rather than being in IT whose job it is to provide these services, they’re spread out throughout the organization.

    Phase three — the powers that be realize that all these MS’s are out there, but rather than being supervised by IT professionals, they’re being supervised by people who do other things — librarians, engineers, police officers, etc. This doesn’t make sense, so the positions are all moved into IT, where they belong.

    You can guess what happens next. Time to cut some positions. Lather, rinse, repeat.

  14. hedera

    This entry reminded me forcibly of my 19 years working for a major bank’s IT department. Really, the whole business of “centralize IT in one department” versus “put the IT people in the depts. that use them” is a pendulum that swings back and forth on a (roughly) 7-10 year cycle, at least where I worked. When I started with the bank they used mainframes, so it had to be centralized. Then depts started buying PCs and hiring their own geeks to manage them, and management got antsy and said, we must centralize IT. So they reorganized and everybody worked for the IT department. The the business units said, the IT department doesn’t understand us, we must have our own geeks; and the whole cycle started over; at the time I left it was so centralized that individual PC desktops were managed remotely by the IT department.

    You’re perfectly correct that the administrative departments are the first to be cut, and CitizenX has summed up the cycle pretty accurately from the viewpoint of a municipality.

    FYI, I just signed up to volunteer a few hours a week for OPD, and it wouldn’t surprise me to find myself working on their computers…

    I’m like Ralph, I have very mixed feelings about unions. A lot of the workplace features that we all expect (8 hour days, 5 day weeks, overtime pay, paid vacations, etc.) are directly due to union organizing in the 20th century; but a lot of the public unions in the bay area – not just Oakland – seem to take an “us first and the hell with you” attitude that grates on me. Look at the Muni union which just rejected cost-cutting measures; that’s going to lead to higher transit costs for citizens who may or may not be able to pay them. Everybody is being hit by the Great Recession, but some of the public unions seem to be trying to ensure that their members don’t take the hit.

    I read a book once where a character said, “People never want to believe that the money isn’t there. They think it’s much more likely that the money IS there and only wants bawling for.” Sooner or later we have to admit that, at least for now, the money isn’t there. And I don’t like it any more than you do.

  15. len raphael

    Cutting IT people is the first long term planning by the cc. Not only does it make the cc look good in the short term, it helps them over the long term because it will reduce government transparency by making it harder to for residents to get the data needed to figure out what’s going on with their city govt.

    -len raphael

  16. concernedoakff

    Oh boy…Where to start. Lets see.

    1)Our radios are getting worse with every permutation, NOT better.

    2) We cannot now, nor will we ever be able to talk to even each other (other OFD and OPD units) everywhere in this city because they decided to go from a very easy, cheap, simple and effective VHF system to a difficult to operate, very expensive, completely COMPUTER CONTROLLED, buggy 800 mhz system.

    3) We are in the process of going to a digitally trunked, 800 Mhz rather than the analog 800 that we currently have. Terrible idea. Expensive and even buggier. This costs MILLIONS that we don’t have for something that we don’t need.

    4) Like many cities that went to an Trunked 800 Mhz system, Oakland refuses to buy enough antennas to allow the system to function correctly. Trunked systems, to make it simple have to get a carrier signal from an antenna in order to work. Even if you are standing right next to me, if I have no signal, I cannot transmit to you.

    5) We have people running the communication system at the fire department that have no background, training or knowledge in communications. None.

    6) This system require computers to run, and therefor power. Earthquake that knocks out the power? No radios. Period.

    7) We have an administration, city and fire department that does not, or cannot admit any of this.

  17. SF2OAK

    David is no troll imo. I know what he wrote is pithy- especially for such a thoughtful and eloquent board- yet his sentiment is in the right place. I don’t even now if it is legal of feasible to outlaw public service unions.

    Here is what the patron saint of public service unions said a short time ago, “The deal used to be that civil servants were paid less than private sector workers in exchange for an understanding that they had job security for life,” Brown asserted. “But we politicians — pushed by our friends in labor — gradually expanded pay and benefits . . . while keeping the job protections and layering on incredibly generous retirement packages. . . . This is politically unpopular and potentially even career suicide . . . but at some point, someone is going to have to get honest about the fact.”

    This from Willie L. Brown, jr.

    Can you say chapter 9?

  18. Robert

    Oh, by the way, take a look at the advertisement for the Director of Information Technology position:
    http://www.oaklandnet.com/government/jobs/docs/120409_Director_of_IT.pdf

    With a salary range of $10,126 – $15,189 per MONTH (that’s a minimum salary of $121,512 annually, and a potential maximum annual compensation of $182,268, plus benefits), I’ll bet there are some former IT staff from the financial industry considering applying, if not someone from Silicon Valley with a Dellums connection in their closet.

  19. Robert

    Hey new Robert. I have been using the Robert moniker here for a long time. Don’t make me have to change. After all, I suspect the readers here know that I hate change. Although I will say, using Old Robert would have a certain cachet. Or perhaps OCR.

  20. Brad

    Uh oh. This calls for moderator intervention. These forums require a level of trust, that a participant’s handle, username, moniker, or what have you won’t be appropriated. Something regular contributor Max Allstadt knows about all too well.

  21. hedera

    To whichever Robert posted the Director of IT listing: I don’t agree about the salary. For a department director with 76 FTE, 5 divisions and a $14mil budget, this salary is way low. When I retired a couple of years ago, I was a senior consulting engineer in a major financial center bank; I had no supervisory responsibility at all. But I made almost 90% of that advertised salary. They may or may not be overpaying the union members but they sure aren’t dishing it out for the IT director.