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.”
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?