Sunday, April 30, 2006

Everyone has a Story

Time for a Change

A little over two years ago now, I heard about some problems the county had had with trying to put technology to work. I checked into it and found that they did indeed have equipment that had been purchased but never hooked up (e.g. large format scanner for architectural drawings), machines that had never been properly networked together, servers still in need of setup, desktop systems to set up and install. I had some time on my hands so I asked to help out.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I could have used some full time work back then and I would have loved to have had a job close to home, but I was up front with everybody about that. To my thinking this was a win for everybody. They got a computer systems professional to help out for free, and I got a chance to show what I could do and learn their systems in advance, which I figured would stand me in good stead if they were to decide they needed more permanent help.

During that time, the county had retained a professional consultant (and very pricy by the hour) to advise them as to what they should be doing to improve their technology infrastructure and how to run a business-like information system. He was also, for that time functioning as the de facto IT manager, so I took my tasking from him for about six weeks.

I proceeded to install equipment, configure e-mail addresses, troubleshoot networking problems and all the usual work such things require. I even started working on a county web site – you can still see it ( ) - and actually made a good start on the parks segment ( ). None of it has been touched since I was asked to leave. Well, all during this time the commissioners discussed and dithered, delayed and debated, with the clock ticking the whole time, the consultant’s bill rising and decisions sorely needing to be made.

I am tempted to elaborate on this story with Vera Benning’s hi-jinks in response to having a volunteer in the house – but that is another story. This one is all about poor management and wasted money.

Given the long history of county funds wasted on failed IT projects, some dating back a decade or more, one would think that someone would have learned a lesson along the way.

Before it was all over, $90K was spent on a consultant who was ignored and then attacked for charging them for his time. He recommended that the county needed a process like any business for dealing with Information Technology and a knowledgeable person who could understand and champion the county’s technical requirements while keeping vendors from raiding the treasury. Under Benning’s influence that initiative died and, as a result of this inaction, the county auditor was permitted to spend an additional sum of over $100K upgrading an obsolete IBM AS400 system that wasn't new in the 80's. Mind you, the system was out of capacity and something needed to be done, but with a timely decision the system could have been replaced with something ten times better for a tenth the cost in hardware and the whole project could probably have been done for half the over all cost of the upgrade -- hardware, software, conversion and all.

I finally had the chance to bring this up with Ms.Benning at the Manchester “Meet the Candidate” night. If you believe her, the Auditor gets to decide what system he wants to use – but that’s like saying they would approve of providing refurbished Model A Fords for the Sheriff for patrol just because he likes them. She also tried to lay it off on Council, they have the purse strings and so they just HAD to waste the money on an antique computer. Somehow, I think Council might have gone along with spending less if given the option. The problem is nobody down there really has any professional knowledge about computers or could put together a better proposal, so how could Council know they had better options?

Some have tried to label the consultant a crook, but who is really to blame if they allowed his time spent to get out of hand, especially if they weren’t going to follow his advise. They just weren’t paying attention… again. They were too busy bickering. In the end, the truth is, they just weren’t competent to deal with computer issues and didn’t have the wisdom to take the steps necessary to provide the county with the kind of information infrastructure the county needs.

All the others who were a part of that debacle are gone now – all but one – I leave it to the voters to handle the one most responsible for getting nothing for money spent, Vera Benning.

Steve Walker
Manchester Township

Other Examples of related waste and inefficiency:

The various departments still have to find and hunt through a giant computer print out of the county accounts, a stack of paper about 3 inches thick, in order to know what their budgets are. This is a dinosaur of the 70’s – in the 21st century this information could and should be viewable online!

Zoning, Building and Health, who all share a role in the permit process, don’t share info as they easily could with computerized workflow, so citizens still play hide and seek with all the bits of the permitting process.

The Recorder still pays a $5 per image royalty fee to an outside vendor for every deed image scanned when it should cost pennies at most.

The county is hosting official information on an offsite web server (, I couldn’t say how much they pay for the service, but they do have their own server that would cost them nothing more.

I am sure there are more if anybody cared to look into it…


Carc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JLamar said...

Your comment about the AS/400 system is interesting. It certainly was new in the 1980's - and it basically can not become out dated.

The software running on it might not be perfect - and that can be changed, but the AS/400 system is essentially future proof in that it can accept connections from any software and any hardware can be paired with it.