Boston City Hall in Dire Need of Major Digital Upgrade, Mayor Says

Mayor Martin J. Walsh said some tech investments are contained in the current budget, and next year’s will contain a larger commitment based on departmental assessments by new Chief Information Officer Jascha Franklin-Hodge.

by Jordan Graham and Jack Encarnacao, McClatchy News Service / September 2, 2014
Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Boston Flickr/Rappaport Center

Mayor Martin J. Walsh is calling for a massive investment of millions of dollars in digital upgrades to transition City Hall into the 21st century and out of the paper-reliant regime of Thomas M. Menino, which Walsh said struggled to keep track of money owed the city due to outdated systems and engendered a tech-unfriendly culture that cut off access to city services when the clock struck 5 p.m.

“Ideally, I’d love to be the No. 1 most efficient city government in the country,” Walsh told the Herald. “We’re talking tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars to do this, upgrading all our technology.”

Walsh said some tech investments are contained in the current budget, and next year’s will contain a larger commitment based on departmental assessments by new Chief Information Officer Jascha Franklin-Hodge.

“At the State House, people were a lot more connected to their work, on their iPhone, their email,” Walsh said. “I see that less in City Hall. I’d like to get to a point where people would take an interest — even when they’re not physically in a building — in their job.”

The city is in the process of updating key systems, including the human resources department, with an 18-to-24-month, $15 million upgrade beginning today. That process will digitize time sheets, benefits information and other paper processes for roughly 20,000 city employees.

“It touches every hire, every personnel transaction in the city,” Deputy Chief Information Officer Matt Mayrl said.

Currently, he said, “You fill out a paper that goes to your supervisor, who hand-signs his or her name on it, then hand-delivers to HR, who then hand-keys it in. The final record is still a paper signature in a file cabinet.”

The city is also eyeing ways to go paperless, such as digitizing paper records and replacing paper forms with websites.

Right now, Mayrl said, only 12 permits are accessible online — out of the 35 to 40 that are accessed by 100,000 applicants every year.

The permitting process for even simple matters like moving vans is entirely on paper — even though permits must be signed off on by four different departments.

And cassette tapes are still used to record Inspectional Services, Zoning Board of Appeals and Parks Commission meetings.

“A huge priority needs to be on digitizing and bringing into the 21st century all of our systems,” said Daniel Koh, Walsh’s chief of staff. “I find myself in certain situations throughout the day where some of the technology that we use is impeding my ability to do my job.”

For instance, he noted, many city computers don’t allow employees to access with any other browser than Internet Explorer.

At the Department of Public Works, Commissioner Michael Dennehy said paper work orders are being phased out in favor of mobile devices that can communicate the same information.

“The joke was that ‘PWD’ stood for ‘Paper Works Department,’?” Dennehy said. “We’ve gone away from giving them a work order to give them a mobile device. It has magnified our efficiency.”

And today, “every one of those yards turn on their computer first thing in the morning,” he said.

The city has also targeted upgrades for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, including an online system that would allow project filings to be submitted electronically. Walsh blamed the BRA’s computer systems for failing to account for money owed by developers, as exposed by a recent audit.

“There was so much money owed to the city, and that really was a reporting issue where the computers weren’t talking to each other,” Walsh said.

Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Media and a government technology expert, said Boston’s problems are common throughout the country, but that is not an excuse.

“Very few cities have gotten to the level of a 1992 Camry, and there’s nothing close to the Tesla,” Rasiej said. “There’s huge amounts of money to be saved, and there’s also the potential of a more engaged citizenry.”

Sometimes, it’s the small improvements that make a big difference.

“We have voice mail, a revolutionary thing at City Hall,” Koh said in a wry reference to Menino’s famous ban. “When I was working under the previous administration, I understood the mentality ... because they wanted a human first, but what it manifested itself in was little pieces of paper that would say ‘while you were out ... ’ You would lose those pieces of paper quickly.”

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