SF’s technology stuck in the ’90s

‘The worst idea is to go out there, pick winners and losers, and say, ‘Here’s what we’re gonna do: Go through a three- or four-year procurement process, spend tens of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money,’ only to find out that once you go that system, 150 other competitors are out there and all of a sudden, it’s obsolete. And that’s what’s happened in government in the past.”

Mayor Gavin Newsom recently made that statement to Fritz Nelson of InformationWeek magazine. The men were discussing The City’s move to open-source government. (Dear Mom: “Open-source government” means that we make a bunch of data available and let the nerds of the world sort it out — using it to create maps, databases and drinking games — at no cost to The City.) Capitalizing on the fact that some people have a twisted idea of fun (writes the woman who watches government hearings on purpose) seems like a natural way to save money on our notoriously degenerate technology systems, but there are still plenty of glitches.

At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor David Campos (visibly giddy to be talking about something besides the sanctuary policy) grilled representatives from the Department of Technology, who showed up to ask for a computer consulting contract extension (it was the eighth extension request in as many years).

Campos demanded to know why the consultants from Owens Systems are so darn special that they keep getting their contract extended. Because — explained John Walton, director of the Committee on Information Technology — they are the only people who know how to run the Court Management System, which The City’s criminal justice departments currently use to share and track information. Oh, and the system was created in 1974 (I think I actually gasped when I heard that — both happy and sad that the year 1974 was before I was born).

Because it’s hard to end the Owens contract when it has the only people skilled enough to operate the Speak & Spell that contains all our criminal justice information, Campos did what we do here in San Francisco: He ordered a study from the Department of Technology, which may or may not be presented on a Lite-Brite.

According to the budget analyst’s report on the matter, The City decided in 1997 to move to a system called the Justice Information Tracking System. At a projected cost of $15.5 million, it was supposed to be implemented by 2001. In 2000, The City approved a contract to pay Owens about $1 million to handle the old system until 2001, when the transition to the new system would be complete. 

In retrospect, those estimates were downright adorable. The JUSTIS system project is now expected to be 10 years late and $6 million over budget — set to be complete in 2011 at a cost of $22 million. Reports examining the causes of this fiasco cite expanded expectations for the new system and the fact that for years the project “lacked a single person or entity that [was] accountable” for the program’s completion. 

With the JUSTIS project delayed, we’ve had to keep relying on the old system and the folks at Owens Systems who know how to run it. What began as a $1 million contract ending in 2001 is now an $8 million contract set to expire in 2015. (Though we are cheerfully — if delusionally — reminded by the Department of Technology that if the JUSTIS system goes online earlier than 2015, the contract can be terminated.)

The good news, according to one Department of Technology representative, is that the Sheriff’s Department is set to go live with the JUSTIS system “in a few weeks.” Here’s hoping the 1997 technology won’t be obsolete.

Clearly, when it comes to technology, San Francisco has not fully escaped the pitiful practices of “government in the past.”


New sanctuary policy is official — or is it?

On Nov. 10, the Board of Supervisors overrode Mistermayor’s veto of a new sanctuary policy that protects undocumented juveniles who are arrested on suspicion of felonies from federal immigration authorities. As of today — 30 days later — that law is officially in effect.

The Juvenile Probation Department now has 60 days (until Feb. 8) to “modify its policies and practices to comply with the provisions of this Ordinance to the extent permitted by state and federal law.” 

In the meantime, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s position hasn’t changed: Because federal law prohibits shielding undocumented juveniles from federal authorities, no change in policy is expected anytime soon.

Campos maintains that the mayor does not get to decide whether the ordinance conflicts with federal law. According to Campos, state law requires that the mayor fully enforce any local law that is not illegal on its face, and this one is not because it’s legally defensible.

Ultimately, this dispute has landed in the office of City Attorney Dennis Herrera. Matt Dorsey, press secretary for the city attorney, told me Herrera “is working cooperatively with attorneys from the immigrant rights community to forge a legal strategy to enable the law’s fullest possible force and effect.” Now that’s all very neighborly, but unless Mistermayor changes his mind, Herrera will eventually have to address the legality of Newsom’s approach to the sanctuary ordinance.

I asked mayoral spokesman Joe Arellano whether Mistermayor would follow Herrera’s advice if it meant enforcing the new law. His answer? “We’ll cross that bridge when and if we see a memo from the City Attorney’s Office.”

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