Some readers may recall that yours truly advised Angel Taveras’s 2010 mayoral campaign on the issues of information technology, web services and open government (known then as “government 2.0”). Later, I served on the transition committee studying these same issues and served on the Open Providence Commission for Transparency and Accountability that met throughout 2012.
The commission issued a report and recommendations in early 2013. And, much to my surprise, the Taveras administration actually tried to implement it. You could fill the library at Alexandria with the commission and consultant reports that were written and immediately shelved. (Commerce RI’s 2010 Roadmap to a Green Economy comes to mind…)
The push toward implementation shows that Taveras and his administration took these issues seriously, as they rightly should. It is a pity that he won’t be able to pick up on the good work done on this front by Governor Chafee at the state level, but I digress.
Open data and information technology are the kinds of tedious, nerdy things that nobody cares or thinks much about—much like highway bridges—until they break. Then everybody freaks the hell out. The fact is that open access to government data or the lack thereof has a profound effect on regular people.
Would you like to log in to your account with the city government and see all your stuff there on a single page? When I say “your stuff” I mean your car tax, your property tax, your parking tickets, your application for a vendors license, your building permits, your communications with public works about that dead tree that’s about to take down the utility lines, etc. Yeah, that stuff.
I certainly would, but I can’t. And it’s not like I haven’t tried. On the commission, my main job was constantly to advocate that the city provide basic web services for residents and develop an internal capability to do so instead of paying ridiculous money to third parties that provide mediocre, rapidly obsolete systems. Sensible and cost-effective as this might be, it remains just a distant possibility. Many things need to change—especially the knowledge and attitudes of city councilors, department heads and…well, everybody in government that can’t make a web page with a text document.
The ugly reality of IT in Providence city government
Your Frymaster also enjoyed a courtesy interview for the role of Chief Information Officer for the city, but I was never really in the race. Jim Silveria, who landed that job and also served on the commission, has done his best to deliver on the commission’s recommendations. This is no slight to Jim. It’s an indictment of the inertia, entrenched interests, lack of resources and lack of capability of existing resources within city government.
I would not have made the same decisions that Jim has, and that’s probably why he got the job instead of me. But at least he made decisions and moved the situation forward in a significant way.
Providence now has an open data portal, an open meetings portal, live streaming and archived video of council meetings and highly-transparent, browsable repository of all the bids to all the city’s RFPs since they started using the system earlier this year. Not for nothin’, but that’s serious progress.
Here’s the thing: all of those new services—just like the previously existing services for paying parking tickets, taxes and your water bill—are from third parties. Expansion of the city’s internal capabilities has been virtually nil. (NB: the RFP repository was developed in-house by the city of Newport, so it can be done—even in RI. Also, using Ustream and Vimeo for the video is kind of a no-brainer.)
While it’s true that outdated job descriptions and overall municipal employees union intransigence hold the city back, the primary cause is a catch-22 in which a lack of resources leads to inefficient use of the resources that are available. This problem stems from an overall lack of understanding at the highest levels (in this case, the city council, department heads and possibly even the executive administration) of the importance of investing in technology and tech-savvy people.
By no means is Providence alone in this regard. Most governments and most corporations have the same problem. This 2008 article by the internationally renowned IT pioneer JP Rangaswami sums it up pretty well. JP starts by repeating one of his favorite quotes, itself from years before:
When you turn down a request for funding an R&D [read: IT] project, you are right 90% of the time. That’s a far higher rate of decision accuracy than you get anywhere else, so you do it.
And that’s fine. Except for the 10% of the time you’re wrong. When you’re wrong, you lose the company.
~ Howard Schneiderman [editorial comment is mine]
If you go read that article, scroll down to the comments. Somebody you know might have weighed in…
“There’s two ways to do things: the right way and
the Army way”
My father used that well-trod quip anytime I tried to cut corners or get away with a half-assed effort. At its core is the recognition that institutions have a hard time changing their thinking and making the tough decision to do what’s best in the long run. Corporations have quarterly reports to shareholders; governments have elections. Doing today the same thing you did yesterday and kicking the can down the road remain the default options for almost every leader everywhere.
And more’s the pity.
In the case of the city of Providence, the combination of an inflexible union, a poorly informed city council, resistant department heads and the absence of a breakthrough leader that could change those three previous items has created the situation where you cannot do things the right way; you can only do things the Army way. Specifically, the city can’t hire a qualified IT person for $100,000 per year, but the city can pay an outsider vendor $100,000 a year to do what the qualified IT person could do in a couple of months.
Thus our tax dollars—that could be paying local people and small IT firms to do great work, as I have repeatedly advocated—go to massive, far off corporations that give us mediocre systems. Just imagine what the city pays in licensing fees just for Microsoft Office. Right?
Code Island, civic hackers and open data
In 2014, Code for America sent a cohort of fellows to work with the state of Rhode Island and created the first state-level “brigade,” Code Island. (All previous brigades worked at the municipal level.) Yours truly serves as the official brigade Storyteller, a CfA-required position for all brigades that roughly translates as communications resource. Open Providence commission chair John Marion and commissioner Nelson Rocha also play active roles. Shawn Selleck, the civic innovation consultant to the city of Providence who has helped Jim Silveria fight the good fight at City Hall, is the brigade’s official Community Organizer.
CfA and its brigades are known as “civic hackers,” computer systems developers and designers that volunteer their time and talent to produce web- and mobile-enabled software applications that let regular people see and use government data. Code Island is greatly enabled by Jim Silveria and Thom Guertin, a Woonsocket native and RI’s Chief Digital Officer.
Code Island has several development projects in process, the most ambitious being a visualization tool that will let users slice and dice the five years of state budget data recently released on the state’s transparency portal. Our tool will provide far greater detail and flexibility that the state’s visualization. Again, this is no slight to RI.gov or Thom and his team. They can only do so much, and by making the data accessible to us, they enable us to take it to the next level.
This is how civic hacking works: open data + free apps = teh awesome.
Code Island wants the candidates on the record
Last week, the brigade sent the three major candidates for mayor of Providence a questionnaire, asking them to go on the record about how they would approach the issue of open data. We focused only on the city of Providence because, despite the significant progress that the Taveras administration has made, we still rate just a D+ for spending transparency, according to RIPIRG.
It’s not like RIPIRG has an ax to grind on this. The rating is in line with the open data census that the Open Knowledge Foundation runs. We rank #41 with a score of 230 compared with New York City, the national leader, with a score over 1600.
The sad fact is that Providence is woefully behind the curve. For a place that fancies itself a geeky little IT haven, that’s fairly pathetic. Yes, IT is nerdy and hard to understand. Yes, hiring people is more complicated than paying a vendor. Yes, EVERYBODY in IT needs to be on a lifelong learning path of continuous improvement.
Yes, yes, yes to everything that is difficult and complicated and…the right thing to do. So, candidates, is any of you willing to push through the inertia so that Providence can finally stop doing IT the Army way?
So far, nobody has given us a response. Jorge Elorza, unsurprisingly, has listed continuing and accelerating implementation of the Open Providence report as part of his ethics agenda. He even specifies creation of a dashboard, which is that thing where you log in to your account and see all your stuff.
I’ve only been pushing for a dashboard for, I dunno, a decade. Can we please?