Will Stockton's IT department survive bankruptcy?

Before bankruptcy, Stockton, Calif.’s IT department had its share of problems. Now that the city is officially insolvent, does it have a chance of fixing them?

Stockton is the largest city in the U.S. to declare bankruptcy, but there’s a long list of municipalities struggling with unfunded pensions, declining property tax revenue, high unemployment and surging levels of crime.

In 2008, Stockton had 52 people in its IT department. It now has 36, according to its budget.

A request to interview IT officials in Stockton, made both by phone and email, wasn’t granted. But the city’s budget and a recent report by an independent consultant of Stockton’s IT department offers an outline of the IT operation.    

Stockton’s IT budget, at least in 2010 when it had a few more employees, accounted for about 5% of the city’s general fund, a percentage “within the best practices range for similar municipal organizations,” wrote the consulting firm hired by the city, NexLevel Information Technology.

But the consultant’s report paints a bifurcated picture of Stockton’s IT department.  (The consultant’s report is on page 322 of the June 19, 2012 council agenda packet: 31MB download.)

The IT staff is professional and responsive and performs as well or better than its peers, according to NexLevel’s survey of Stockton IT users, which was released one year ago this month.    

For instance, when asked “how satisfied are you with IT Division staff ability to solve your technical issue the first time you call for help?” The response was 82% positive, which was higher than its peers, at 76% (Peers are other California communities surveyed by the consultant).

But where Stockton’s IT had problems was in aligning itself with the business. Technology, overall, is “perceived as an obstacle rather than an enhancement to their productivity.”

Translation: The users want upgrades and aren’t happy with GroupWise.

“The IT division must strive to become customer focused,” the consultants wrote.

The survey asked: “How satisfied are you that the city’s computer programs (applications) are meeting your business needs?” Only 43% gave a positive response, versus the peer group response of 75%.

When asked: “How satisfied are you with the version level or system compatibility of the computer programs you use?” Only 40% gave a positive response, versus 69% in the peer group.

The responses to those two questions indicate that Stockton isn’t modernizing its IT.  Despite this, users were “generally satisfied” with the IT department’s service, the consultants wrote.

The consultants recommended re-organizing the IT department with the goal of improving customer services. And, by the way, they also recommend that the city “procure and implement a new ERP system.”  

Stockton’s IT department is running increasingly out-of-date, inefficient systems with fewer people, that seems clear. If it can’t modernize, it’s going to have a hard time helping the city use IT to get better insight into its problems.  A death spiral begins.

It is in the disaster zones where the need is the greatest, and Stockton is a disaster zone. The money won’t arrive, but there might be opportunity here for clever and creative IT people, provided the government is wise enough to unleash it.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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