The needler in the haystack.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Council has concerns on oversight, plans for Information Technology

Best practices are to base IT projects on a detailed Needs Assessment.

In a probing back-and-forth with Plainfield's Information Technology Manager Chris Payne at last night's budget deliberations, the City Council expressed concerns about oversight and plans for implementation of a lengthy list of IT to-do items grouped under five goals (including some points made in my post of yesterday here).

While generally supportive of Payne's efforts, the Council had plenty of questions. With not only IT (including the city's networked computers, servers and internet access) matters, but also the website and the cable TV station, Payne has plenty on his plate.

The discussion did not clarify exactly which of all these areas Payne has direct competence in and in which he would need to rely on others for technical assistance.

A simple question from Councilor Mapp was quite illustrative of the problems at hand. When Mapp asked when Payne would get the budget documents on the city's website, Payne replied 'as soon as I get them', which left everyone wondering why Payne had not been instructed to put the budget docs online before this. (The gap has been filled somewhat by Councilor Burney's having scanned them and put them on his website, but it leaves unaddressed the question of why they weren't put on the city website in the first place.)

Following up on Mapp, Councilor Carter opened a line of questioning that made it clear that IT, as currently configured, stands outside the department structure laid out in the city's charter.

Councilor Storch, initially pressing for reporting to the City Administrator, pointed out that with IT reporting to Mayor Robinson-Briggs, there were the problems that Plainfield's Mayor is a part-time position and that the Mayor is not equipped as a manager of such a technical undertaking as IT. Councilor Reid seconded Storch's comment that IT should not report to the Mayor's office.

In further discussion, the Council pressed forward with the idea that this should be remedied through an ordinance placing IT in a department -- Finance and Administration was suggested.

With respect to the IT goals, Storch was supportive but cited what he considered 'missing pieces' -- specifically the lack of time frames for any of the goals. Storch also pressed that the shared services component should be comprehensive and include the Library, PMUA and Housing Authority in addition to the City and the schools.

One avenue of questioning that was opened but never really concluded was how things get put on the city's website (and, at another point, how the decision is made as to what is taped for the CATV station). At each point, department heads and the Mayor were mentioned as being in the mix, but no plan or criteria were mentioned. Establishing criteria for what should go on the website (and be taped at city expense for the CATV station) would doubtless improve the offerings and empower those responsible (maybe even speeding the process up a bit?).

Looking over the materials in the IT presentation, I am concerned that it still lacks the DETAILED INFORMATION necessary for the Council to make wise decisions in regard to IT.


Such a
NEEDS ASSESSMENT would include --
  • a detailed inventory of all the IT assets and resources, including complete specs on all equipment;
  • complete details on all Internet services, including contract lengths and costs;
  • detailed lists of the skill sets, competencies and certifications of all personnel;
  • detailed lists of the responsibilities and assignments to be covered by all personnel;
  • a detailed assessment of the needs NOT COVERED by the equipment and personnel at hand;
  • timelined recommendations of steps to address any UNMET NEEDS in equipment and personnel.
Amounts are requested for CONSULTANTS ($100,000) and HARDWARE/SOFTWARE MAINTENANCE ($50,000), but there is no DETAILED breakdown of what these figures are based on and EXACTLY what consultants are needed for and what maintenance needs to be done.

Further, there are requests to INCREASE STAFFING in both the IT and the Media/Communications sides. Without knowing why it is thought more staff is needed -- are there COMPETENCY GAPS among current staff? is it a matter of VOLUME OF WORK, and if so in what exact detail? -- the Council cannot possibly understand whether the request is reasonable or not.

Councilor Burney was first to comment after Payne's presentation, saying that 'if we had done this five years ago we would not have some of these issues'.

Burney made me recall exactly what position the City was in five years ago, when he was also a Council member.

In the beginning of Mayor Robinson-Briggs' first term, the Council endorsed her decision to engage consultants (QuadTech) to handle IT and the city's website (see links to my detailed coverage at the end of this post; I still think there was criminality involved which should have been pursued).

The Council followed the Mayor's lead with little or no resistance and the result was an imbroglio of massive proportions culminating in the spending of large sums of taxpayer monies without Council authorization (where I think the criminality comes in), in the end leaving the City high and dry, with a botched IT mess and a website that was COMPLETELY USELESS AND UNWORKABLE for the better part of a year. Burney was in the mix, though his remark last night suggests he has forgotten all about it.

At one point, Council President McWilliams said the Council needed to remember 'we're building something from nothing'.

While that may slightly overstate the case, my concern is that the information on which the Council is being asked to make some weighty financial decisions here is too vague for them to act wisely. No one should get carte blanche, IT included.

It is perfectly fair to ask IT how the Council can support its recommendations without the details it needs, and why, after nine months, those details are still not forthcoming.

At the end of Payne's time on the hot seat, Council President McWilliams remarked that he could not come before the Council the next time 'with no improvement'.

I'm suggesting NOW is when the Council needs to press for improvement -- of the information on which they are to base a funding decision for FY2011.

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Anonymous said...

If it is true that the mayor is part time, how can she make such a mess of things? Is there nothing in the City Charter that details her role and responsibilities? If so, perhaps she should stick to them.

GB said...

Okay all you community minded geeks: Find a Municipal Web Site that you think is top notch [Yes Bells & Whistles included, filling out forms on line, email to officials and budet info], and DEMAND the same quality for Plainfield. That would not be asking for a miracle, just a solid return on our tax $$.

Anonymous said...

I though the City's website was just fine quite a few years back. Informative and everything I needed to know was there except online agendas and council minutes ad budget info but at least I knew who to call for the info

Rob said...

Martin Awesrt said...

I can't understand why documents need to be scanned to be placed online. Get the free PDFWriter or other open source PDF writer and save as a PDF and then post online. This nonsense by the administration that they need to scan it and don't have the manpower to do so is just the delay tactic in hopes that the residents forget. I applaud Mr. Burney for scanning them but it's a waste of time.

The IT plan wasn't a plan. They don't have a plan. Between the Housing Authority, PMUA, City and Schools Plainfield has enough funding to have a complete wired and wifi network. The biggest problem we have is the theft of services and funds by those in charge - specifically Ms. Briggs

Anonymous said...

Mr Awesrt,
Do you have any solid evidence of theft by the mayor? If so, why have you not brought it forward to the authorities? If not, may I suggest you refrain from making libelous accusations in a public forum.