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 For many city departments, Wengraf said information on the city’s website was inaccurate or out of date.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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Berkeley General Fund revenues may fall short in 2012-13 [12.12.12]
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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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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...