In The News › City IT director tries to end reliance on contracts

City IT director tries to end reliance on contracts

Wednesday, September 28, 2011
By Jennifer Larino

When Allen Square took over the city’s troubled technology department last May, he walked into a staff divided. About half of the department’s 60 workers were city employees and the remainder third-party contractors.

It was the type of setup Mayor Mitch Landrieu promised to reverse when he took office more than a year ago and found a tradition of assigning day-to-day tasks to contract workers instead of city staff.

It was also an environment in which Mark St. Pierre, a vendor during the Ray Nagin administration, paid more than $800,000 in kickbacks to then-city officials for millions of dollars in city work. A federal jury convicted St. Pierre of bribery and fraud in May.

This year, the city budget provided $17.1 million for Square to turn around the renamed Information Technology and Innovation Department. It’s the most dedicated to IT since the Nagin administration set aside $32.7 million in 2008.

Records show that spending on professional services accounts for 15 percent of the IT budget so far this year, down from 33 percent in 2010 and 55 percent in 2009.

Square said he plans to hire 24 employees to perform work previously handled by contractors, and he intends to establish a council of City Hall staffers to set the city’s tech priorities.

“We thought if we’re only going to be here for four years at the minimum, let’s build a strong foundation so everybody else’s options are actually good options,” Square said. “When we walked in the door, they were all bad.”

Allison Plyer, deputy director of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, said the IT council is a step in the right direction, but large projects will be the real test of efforts to keep contractor roles in check.

“The contractors are salespeople and they will promise all kinds of things,” Plyer said. “They may not be well-grounded on the realities of the internal City Hall systems.”

Parting with a history of reliance on third-party vendors is proving to be a slower process than city leaders anticipated. Experts say due diligence will be necessary as the city moves from stabilizing its tech system to a complex overhaul of human resources, financial and other essential systems in 2012.

So far, Square has filled nine of the 24 positions he proposed. Four more positions are in the candidate selection phase and four others are in the salary setting phase.

Square said the city’s civil service system is at the heart of the slow transition from contractors to a robust IT staff. The system, he said, lacks the updated job descriptions and the salary rates needed to attract the uniquely qualified candidates.

Square said he’s working with the civil service department to give department managers greater flexibility in setting salaries, often fighting to increase a salary up by $5,000 or less. Managers must make a request to the City Council to change a pay grade.

“I have not met an individual that is so great to where I’m going to go sit in front of the council and request them a specific salary,” Square said. “I haven’t met anybody like that.”

As spending cuts rock the traditional stability and benefits of government jobs, cities across the U.S. are facing higher hurdles to hire skilled workers such as information technology specialists, said Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute in Alexandria, Va.

“Times have changed to where government employment is far less attractive,” Shark said.

Janet Howard, president and CEO of the Bureau of Governmental Research, said the city’s “calcified and byzantine” civil service system has hampered the effort further.

In a 2004 report, BGR recommended Civil Service more aggressively recruit workers, post positions online and give department managers more discretion over hiring and salaries.

Howard said she has yet to see a hardline reform effort from the city administration that will change a system that relies on contracts.

“If a civil service system isn’t working and they can’t get the kind of people they need, then there is a tendency to hire outside,” Howard said.

As a stopgap measure, the city renewed a controversial contract with Telecommunications Development Corp. in July and one with New Orleans-based MSF Global Solutions in August. TDC was awarded a contract in October 2009 to provide staffing for information systems management and facility repair in City Hall. MSF, run by a former city mapping systems director, offers city mapping and web development services.

In an August 2010 report on the TDC contract, the Office of Inspector General said the city could save $960,000 annually if it moved jobs in-house.

Square said both contracts are pared down, from a $5 million cap for TDC to $2 million this year.

Square said the department will wrap up basic tasks such as documenting system processes and writing a disaster recovery plan for the city IT system by early 2012.

Third-party vendors will be necessary as the city takes on larger projects, he said. In 2012, the department plans to roll out the Ask NOLA information hotline. A request for proposals for a new human resources and financial system goes out this month.

The city has $1.4 million budgeted for the HR and financial system in 2011 and expects to spend about $20 million over the next decade.

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