Rebuilding Reputations

IT-smart San Diego, birthplace of wireless technology, has a ragged patchwork of out-of-date technology and slack security. A reformed city government stands on the brink of change.

San Diego, birthplace of wireless technology, has been saddled with a ragged patchwork of out-of-date technology and slack security. Learn why this proud city stands on the brink of change.

Sami Lais

Reconciling San Diego’s contradictions is not a task for a small imagination. There’s the sunny, urbane home to the California university where wireless technology was invented, a thriving IT business community, and the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center.

There’s also the shadowy city rocked by political corruption, criticized by citizens, and hampered by an IT department that lacked interoperability, security, effectiveness and an accurate inventory of its hardware, software and other technology.

But the city and its IT department also have both successes and a promising future, says San Diego CIO Matthew McGarvey.

In January 2006, Jerry Sanders became the city’s first mayor under a new “strong mayoral” system, charged with day-to-day operations. Before then, McGarvey explains, San Diego was run by a city manager and council, and mayors possessed less responsibility and control.

The old governance model was problematic, because “former officials didn’t want anything changed, and no one had the clout to stop them,” says Ian Trowbridge, a retired biologist from the Salk Institute and the University of California at San Diego, and a critic of the city and its IT department.

The city’s IT department also has been problematic. Even referring to it as a department wrongly implies a cohesive entity. Instead, responsibility is divided among the city-owned San Diego Data Processing Corp. (DPC), IT employees in the city’s 22 agencies and an IT group at city hall.

“That kind of balkanization of IT has been a mess,” Trowbridge says. “Often there was competition between the groups, and often no one had the necessary expertise.”

At $57 to $149 per hour, DPC’s rates were too expensive for some departments, which developed a do-it-yourself policy for IT.

San Diego County outsources its IT operations. “But sourcing strategy isn’t the issue,” says county CIO Michael Moore. “The issue is: centralized or decentralized? A centralized IT shop makes the most sense. When you have distributed IT authority, you don’t have anybody responsible for IT.”

Change in the Wind

One impetus for change was a January 2004 city audit that showed DPC officials spending taxpayer money on lavish retreats. As a result of an investigation by the city’s Ethics Commission, DPC’s former CEO and CTO resigned in 2004 and are on probation for charges stemming from a department contract with a software company in which they both owned stock.

A reduction in spending trimmed DPC’s budget from $60 million in fiscal 2005 to $41 million for fiscal 2007, and a reduction in staff from 400 to 257 followed, McGarvey says.

In early August, the mayor announced a restructuring of the city’s IT department. “The IT department will be taking over management of common services, such as e-mail and file and print servers, and pulling them into our central data center for management,” McGarvey says.

Only about half of the city’s servers are in the central data center, he says, adding, “The other half are in ad hoc data centers, in somebody’s closet or under a desk.”

Consolidating servers and creating a few regional data centers will mean less duplication, fewer servers, a smaller IT staff and a network that can better support business continuity and disaster recovery plans.

E-mail is first on McGarvey’s to-do list. The city council in 2002 approved the IT Strategic Plan, part of which included moving to the Microsoft Outlook e-mail application and Exchange Server operating system, but that move never happened. “About 60 percent of our [approximately 7,500] users are using Novell GroupWise and 40 percent are using Outlook,” he says.

By next summer, most city users will have switched to Outlook, which will be running on probably five to 10 Microsoft Exchange 2003 servers, McGarvey says.

Security is also a concern. Antivirus protection is running citywide on desktops, McGarvey says, but “we are not confident that everyone is keeping their definition files up to date.”

In addition, he faces vexing inventory problems. Some departments have no IT inventories, and data for those that do isn’t universally interoperable. Effectively, no citywide IT inventory exists.

The same goes for the city’s financial systems. Even tracking spending within the department is incomplete. Of the $78 million McGarvey estimates the city spent this year on IT and telecommunications, only $72 million can be accounted for.

The list of San Diego’s problems may be long, but it’s not unique, says Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer at government IT market researcher FedSources in McLean, Va. “Lots of cities and other government agencies — and lots of commercial enterprises — are in the same boat,” he says. “It’s easy to take a defeatist attitude about government, but there are always plenty of opportunities for people like McGarvey to try and make it better.”

Positive News

San Diego has plenty of IT challenges, but “we have pockets of excellence in the city,” says McGarvey. For example, the Streets Division of the Transportation Department has a Web interface that lets users enter an address to see a map of all city streetlights. “You can click on a burned-out light, type in your comment, and it automatically generates a work order in SAP [enterprise resource planning software] and dispatches it,” he says.

At the Environmental Services Department, vehicle data, such as a truck’s location and whether it has arm lifts, is available in real time. “The department has used it to optimize some routes, eliminate others and save millions of dollars,” he says.

Such alignment of IT with business will grow in importance, McGarvey says, because it will guide reorganization of the IT department and the re-engineering of processes.

More Changes Needed

As of the Aug. 8 release of the city’s Audit Committee report, however, the main item on McGarvey’s agenda is the city’s financial systems. The report criticizes the city’s financial management and systems, and calls for replacement of the city’s financial information systems within three years.

“Our current accounting system runs on a very old mainframe, late-1970s era,” McGarvey says. “It doesn’t talk to the budget system, the payroll system or the work orders systems; human resources isn’t connected; and it can’t do adequate financial reporting.

“There are a few days when I ask, ‘What did I get myself into?’” McGarvey says. “It’s an enormous job, but it’s very exciting. We’re making change happen.”


• Replace the city’s 1970s-era, non-interoperable financial systems by August 2009.

• Review and re-engineer IT processes to ensure they align with department missions.

• Consolidate the city’s e-mail servers and train 7,500 users by summer 2007.

• Extend use of SAP enterprise resource planning system throughout the city’s 22 agencies.

• Integrate IT systems citywide for one-touch access for citizens.

Sami Lais is a writer in Takoma Park, Md.

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Oct 31 2006