Mr. Mayor, Are You SURE You Want To Do That?

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By Bill Kennedy

Dear Mr. Mayor,

On Friday you were interviewed on our local radio about your plans to make our growing city more efficient. When asked for specifics, one of the examples you gave was the expense of outsourcing the Information Technology departments of the city, the public transit and the police force. "Why not combine them to save money?" you asked.

On the surface, this looks like a no-brainer and I agree that it makes sense, but please don't look to save money for at least the next 5 years.

Computer systems come with baggage Mr. Mayor. There are old systems that have to be maintained because of the expense of updating them or the lack of a more modern equivalent. There will be incompatible networks and hardware. There will be ongoing projects which have consumed millions of dollars to date. These challenges can't be swept away over night.

Then there is the question of which suppliers, hardware, software and systems to standardize on. This will not be an easy discussion or a quick implementation.

Next there is the question of converting the legacy systems to the new ones. I wish the conversion of old data were as cheap and easy as software salespeople would have you believe. It's not. Put simply, data structures are designed to match the logic of the software that works with them. Different packages use different logic. Converting data requires a bridge between the two approaches. It ain't easy, Mr. Mayor and it requires a lot of vigilance to be sure it is done right.

Now, I don't want to just sit here and criticize, Mr. Mayor. I want to offer some concrete advice. Work from the top down. You employed a blue ribbon team of volunteer business experts to report on the state of the city. Get a similar team of computer experts to look at the city's systems. Start to standardize your vendors and ensure that any systems slated for updating or replacement conform to the new plan. Focus on better information, better service and value for money, rather than cost cutting. Finally, break the project down into deliverables that make sense to the people implementing them. That way there won't be a mass exodus from your IT departments.

Your computer systems are your eyes and ears, Mr. Mayor. Make them the best you can and I guarantee they will help you define areas where real savings can be achieved.

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