Berkeley council looks to IT to transform city operations

Projects like Code for America develop civic apps and technology tools. Berkeley has fallen far behind leading cities. Photo:

Projects like Code for America develop civic apps and technology tools. Berkeley has fallen far behind leading cities. Photo: eekim

Discussion about potential rival ice cream stores on Telegraph Ave. consumed nearly two hours of the Berkeley City Council meeting on Tuesday night, with supporters of the two retailers crowding the chamber. For the first public hearing on the city’s budget for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, and comments on the citywide work plan for FY2014? Less than an hour in a council chamber emptied of the public, but with every city department head in attendance.

But despite the apparent lack of public interest, a lively debate sprung up among council members about how the city should be using technology.

“We’ve cut our employees and we’ve cut our days of work and we’ve been able to maintain core services very well,” said Councilmember Susan Wengraf. “But as we continue to cut and try to be more effective we have to pay more attention to our technology department. This is basically the circulation system of the entire city. The key to becoming more effective in the future is to implement better use of the Internet and to get more efficient programs for whatever the city has to do.”

Wengraf pointed out that the citywide work plan shows the city’s IT department with 37.5 full-time equivalent employees. But 10 of those are in the call center, 11 provide security, support and training as part of network operations (including 24/7 support for public safety and 911 calls), and only 7.5 are in programming. She suggested that more money should be spent on technology.

An IBM AS/400 minicomputer. It was once high technology. Photo: nSeika

An IBM AS/400 minicomputer, which the city uses for its centralized financial system. It was once high technology. Photo: nSeika

“We have enormous needs that aren’t being met,” Wengraf said. She said the city’s centralized financial system, FUND$, which runs on an IBM AS/400 system, was desperately in need of modernization. For many city departments, Wengraf said information on the city’s website was inaccurate or out of date.

“How are we going to get the most bang for our buck in the coming years when we know things are going to be tight?” Wengraf asked. “Getting our systems up to speed and current is probably the best way to do it.”

The proposed budget for the IT department in FY14 is $7.5 million, which includes a reduction of one FTE. The work plan lists a number of objectives for the next two years, including new software to streamline building permits, expanding online payment services, and implementing Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone systems for the city. Compared to Wengraf’s vision, the work plan is modest.

Other cities go much further, sometimes in innovative ways. Organizations like Code for America have led the way in focusing hacking culture on creating civic apps and technologies. Among the city partners for Code for America (founded by an Oakland resident) in 2013 are Oakland, San Francisco, San Mateo, New York City, Kansas City and Louisville.

Councilmember Laurie Capitelli echoed Wengraf’s call for better use of technology, focusing particularly on how the city handles building permits.

“You should be able to buy a booklet of water heater permits online. You should be able to buy a booklet of roofing permits online,” Capitelli said.

He said that he knew many contractors gave estimates for work in Berkeley with three prices: the lowest for no permits, the highest for the contractor obtaining the permits, and a middle estimate where the homeowner is responsible for getting the permits.

“It’s a real imposition on home owners,” Capitelli said. “If we make it easier, we just might get more permits and make it safer for everyone.”

Councilmember Gordon Wozniak said he was glad the city was considering public WiFi networks in some outdoor spaces, including Telegraph Ave. and the Downtown BART Plaza. But he said that should be extended to any city facilities where there is a customer service function.

Wengraf, during a break in the meeting, told Berkeleyside that she hoped something could be done about the city’s use of technology.

“I think the problem is that the council really has to make it a priority,” she said. “It’s not potholes, it’s not social programs. But we’re really behind. We could be doing things so much more effectively, more efficiently, more user friendly. When it comes down to it, it’s about choice. Where do we want to spend the money?”

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Pensions, infrastructure key Berkeley budget liabilities [02.20.13]
Berkeley General Fund revenues may fall short in 2012-13 [12.12.12]
Moody’s places Berkeley bonds under review
Unfunded liabilities prompt initiative, Council resolution [05.15.12]
Berkeley faces difficult path to funding pension liabilities [02.16.12]
Berkeley City Manager Phil Kamlarz: The exit interview [11.30.11]
City workers make sacrifices, help alleviate budget crisis [06.16.11]
Layoffs, fee increases proposed for 2012 budget [05.03.11]
Berkeley city salaries track neighbors closely [03.16.11]
City budget faces $1.8 million mid-year shortfall [02.15.11]
Council faces tough decisions on unfunded liabilities [01.19.11]
Berkeley auditor report shows $310m benefit debt [01.10.11]
Some Berkeley city offices to close two days a month [06.23.10]
Mayor Bates on tackling city’s worst deficit in years [06.17.10]

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  • The_Sharkey

    He said that he knew many contractors gave estimates for work in
    Berkeley with three prices: the lowest for no permits, the highest for
    the contractor obtaining the permits, and a middle estimate where the
    homeowner is responsible for getting the permits.

    “Many” should probably be “most.”
    I’ve been surprised at how many contractors I know who do most of their work in Berkeley without permits.

    And while WiFi in some public areas would be nice, in a city like Berkeley that has a significant homeless population it’s just going to turn the town into more of a hobo magnet than it already is.

  • Berkeley Resident

    There was a short story about Code for America on PBS News Hour recently. Very impressive is an understatement. Stunning, and the coders looked like they were having great fun. It’s the future. Why not Berkeley as a city partner for CFA?

  • cindy

    there are a lot more IT people working in the city than 37.5. many departments in the city have their own IT specialists. it is way over 37.5. Guess wengraf doesn’t ever look at the budget. be better to hire outside contractors to clean up the IT department once and for all. they have a server for almost every department. why not put everything in the cloud? Or would this mean too many would lose their jobs? i wonder if they even know what the cloud is. you don’t throw money at technology without a defined goal. anyway, the unions won’t like fewer employees which any improved technology would eventually mean. most companies have very lean IT departments because people aren’t needed anymore. A few years ago wozniak said that there were like 10 people handling payroll. the city likes it that way. they don’t want to automate anything, loss of jobs.

  • curiousjorge

    big ups to Capitelli for the online permit push. what a relief that would be…

  • bgal4

    they could also complete an evaluation of the last two IT dept strategic plans and determine what % of the work product goals were met.

  • iicisco

    I hope this new proposed budget includes funding for a new and improved city website. It’s not just outdated, it looks old and ugly. Reminds me of Windows XP. New monitors and an upgrade to Vista or 7 would be great..

  • Brad Johnson

    The people hanging out in Downtown aren’t there for wireless. The “problem” is less homeless and more street kids. WiFi is not really their thing.

  • The_Sharkey

    If WiFi isn’t there thing, why is there almost always a small crowd of gutter punks in front of Starbucks with laptops?

    Many of them won’t use it (the old crusties) but free WiFi will add just add to the draw for the seasonal lifestyle homeless youth.

  • guest

    bgal4…spot on! Until we have a real performance audit by people not the payroll, we’ll never know what’s really going on…aside from media moment grabs like this.

  • bgal4

    outcomes not inputs.

    just look at the progress on youth programming data collection #26. The city has been listing this goal for over 15 years and $15 million spent on youth programming per year from state, federal and city sources. Without a shared youth database there is no systemic case management or program evaluation.

    Berkeley residents are chumps, we pay plenty and swallow lies.
    Capitelli intends to be the next mayor, read his latest news letter on youth violence, leaves me hopeless….

  • Hildah

    And from where do you get your information. Prove it.

  • Kevin Leong

    It’s not cheap.