Guess you guys know this issue better than me…

Charlottetown City Councillor Bruce Garrity, in a uncommonly honest post here (uncommonly honest for a politician, not for Bruce; Bruce is all about uncommon honesty), wrote the following in response to my post about City Council technology spending motions:

I questioned the $70,000+ for the Complaint Tracking System prior to the vote and after some discussion I thought , OK, guess you guys know this issue better than me so i voted for it. The next day I emailed all Council to ask that we give it a sober second thought and not approve the spending. I have not received any replies on this point… I was wrong to vote yes— actually I think it’s really out of line to spend $70,000 when we are $70 million in debt!

Emphasis is mine.

I have no idea whether a Complaint Tracking System is a good idea for Charlottetown or not, mostly because I don’t know what a Complaint Tracking System is, and I don’t know who’s complaining about what and how often.

But I’m afraid that Bruce’s suggestion that he voted because he trusted his technology staff confirms something I’ve always assumed: politicians are often in thrall of their technology advisers.

It’s completely understandable, of course. Think about it: you’re a middle-aged responsible citizen who has sidled up to the democracy bar to represent your neighbourhood on Council. You’re a smart person: you have a career and a family, and you can do the New York Times crossword puzzle.

A motion comes to the floor, with an explanation like “we’ve got to upgrade the hard drive controllers in our server farm so that we can protect ourselves from DOS attacks that may render the tax system unusable.” Or “we’ve already invested in a web-based infrastructure for tax payments; this additional expenditure in GIS infrastructure will streamline and enhance that investment.” Or “our vendor indicates that we need to upgrade to version 7.x because they’re no longer releasing security upgrades to legacy systems.”

Huh?

You have two choices at this point: you can ask hard questions, which will require a lot of explanation (from people who probably aren’t all that good at explaining things), will require you to look like an idiot (“what’s a hard drive?”) and will slow down the meeting. Or you can say, as Bruce did, “guess you guys know this issue better than me” and agree to proceed.

I’d hazard a guess that in 95% of situations in 95% of cities, towns and villages, 95% of councillors will do the same.

I don’t mean to say that cities shouldn’t spend on technology. Nor do city councillors need to be Linux kernel hackers to properly do their jobs. But we elect our councillors to represent our interests, to act responsibly, and, I assume, to know the substance of what it is they’re approving when they agree to spend our money.

There’s a reason we don’t simply allow technology staff to spend money without oversight: while they may be technical experts, and skilled at designing technology solutions, they’re not responsible for overseeing the needs of the community as a whole. That’s why we have councillors.

I think we community of technologists bear some of the responsibility for this, for we are the high priests of the religion that we are asking councillors to unthinkingly adopt.

How can we help them do their jobs more responsibly?

Comments

Alan's picture
Alan on May 3, 2004 - 23:08

This is a tough thing. I do this now and it is not necessarily unique to IT as compared, say, to environental consultants, sewer systems or snowplows. On the IT side, I would not say that the IT technocrats are to blame so much as the vendors as no community the size of Charlottetown or PEI has professional dedicated IT buyers who know more about every marketplace opprotunity across the broad range of what constitutes IT.

One trick — issue a request for information before a tender or RFP to make the marketplace tell you what is out there. Then have an IT policy and procurement committee review all needs and opportunities followed by priorizing what the actual puchasing requirements over time will be. This forces the community doing the purchasing into educating itself about what it needs before it faces the prospect of vendors telling it what it needs.

Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on May 4, 2004 - 05:12

Why not have an elected “Minister of Technology,” who in his or her stump speeches presumably would have to show the ability to communicate and open up discussion on whatever are the important issues?

Cyril's picture
Cyril on May 4, 2004 - 07:01

I AM SURE WE ONLY KNOW HALF THE STORY ANYHOW… SEE BELOW FOR A STORY FROM SATURDAY’S CALGARY HERALD!

Alberta in running for secrecy award

The Canadian Press

Saturday, May 01, 2004

The Alberta Government is among the nominees for the fourth annual Code of Silence Award, recognizing the most secretive governments and government agencies in Canada.

The RCMP, Health Canada, the New Brunswick Health Department and Charlottetown city council round out the list of finalists for the dubious honour, to be presented May 8 by the Canadian Association of Journalists.

The Alberta government was singled out for its handling of a freedom of information request involving a defamation suit against former provincial cabinet minister Stockwell Day.

After spending nearly $800,000 defending Day in the lawsuit, a judge found the province attempted to manipulate public opinion by selectively releasing documents on the government’s actions sought under the Freedom of Information Act.

When the Globe and Mail and the opposition Liberals requested more documents, they were told they would each be charged $60,000. After Justice Terrence McMahon of the Alberta Court of Queens Bench drastically lowered the fees and ordered the government to comply, the Alberta Department of Justice released mainly old newspaper clippings and other documents of little journalistic value.

Rusty's picture
Rusty on May 4, 2004 - 12:45

Its not just IT; think about the tree issue in Charlottetown. If Mitch Tweel is not an arborist, then he relies on the advice from the city staff to make the right decisions. The city council has a duty to hire the right staff and properly oversee what they’re doing, what they’re talking about and if they’re getting the right information from suppliers and contractors. If they can’t rely on the staff to properly explain things or implement good purchasing policies, then they should get some new staff.

Rob L.'s picture
Rob L. on May 4, 2004 - 13:30

I agree with the need for thorough analysis and oversight before going on a willy nilly spending spree, but your whole premise appears to be in complete contrast with what you said a few days ago with regard to healthcare spending.

…I [am] fully prepared to take the word of the doctors at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital about what needs to be done; if you need to raise my taxes to do the work, go ahead. Just do it, and stop the obfuscating.”

I’ll admit our health care system is a more vital and immedidate concern than palm pilots for city council, but it can also be a giant tax-dollar-sucking black hole. I heard two QEH doctors explain on CBC radio why the “functional review” is so critical before committing the dollars, and it made perfect sense.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on May 6, 2004 - 04:10

I recognize that I’ve advocated two completely opposite sides of the same issue. What’s more, I continue to passionately believe in each argument. Go figure.

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