Council Faces Huge Bill for IT Glitch. Maybe They Should Just Dial Jesus for Technical Help.

The Dallas city council today is locked in a dispute today over paying a contractor $8.3 million to help City Manager Mary Suhm straighten out a huge mess with the city's computerized billing system. Unable to resolve it this morning, they will come back to the question this afternoon. Watch if you dare.

A Steve Thompson story in The Dallas Morning News this morning reports that Suhm wants to ditch a billing system on which she has squandered $26 million so far and turn operations over to a private provider instead. The original item on today's council agenda says, "[It] has become increasingly apparent that recruiting and retaining the right IT resources and skill sets for support has proven very difficult for the city."

Oh, my. Now there is an understatement. The city's information technology department has gone through about 10 generations of incompetence, including the most recent chapter in which the city tried to assemble a hot IT staff by hiring a bunch of people who had no IT experience but all attended the same church.

Somewhere in the bowels of City Hall, somebody has a checklist called "Ideas for recruiting good IT" with a big X over idea No. 17, "Religion."

In Thompson's story, Suhm kvetches about not being able to pay people enough money to keep them. On the one hand, that's probably true. On the other hand, it doesn't seem like it should cost that much to hold on to totally incompetent but very religious people.

But stop. Wait a minute. This brings us to an interesting seam in the narrative. Does it mean that government is just bad and private enterprise is just good? OK, this discussion requires me to say some stuff that really sticks in my throat, because all I do is bitch about City Hall for a living, but I'll do it anyway.

The fact is that City Hall recruits a good number of people who are very good at what they do, who have skill sets that are essential to protecting and promoting the public interest -- skills not commonly found in the private sector. Why does that stick in my craw? Oh, just because I'm on the other side of a bunch of specific issues with these folks a lot of the time.

But you take somebody like Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan -- damn, this is hard to say -- who came to City Hall from the nonprofit world. I don't know how long she has been there -- at least 15 years. Jordan is extremely good at handling and brokering contending interests in the kind of tough but congenial way it's got to be done in government.

I could talk about Theresa O'Donnell, director of the city's Department of Helping Developers (not its real name). I'm always way on the other side of issues from her, but I also have great respect for her ability to do what she does.

Take Suhm, for that matter. I have known her for a long time. She worked her way up at City Hall. She's very smart. But here's the secret to Mary Suhm: She thinks City Hall is challenging, fun, worthwhile. And that's what you have to have in the key governmental posts. You need people who don't just believe in what they are doing, but love it. Some days.

If anything, when I think of all the people I have met over the years at Dallas City Hall who are engaged in truly governmental functions, I have the impression that the vast majority of them are extremely competent, probably at a level of competence vis a vis their stated duties that is at least equivalent and sometimes quite a bit higher than the competence of people I run into in the private sector. It's a matter of what they are tasked to do.

I don't think you want people in government posts doing the IT any more than you want them producing the beef for the cafeteria. A certain parsing of the basic activities is necessary, a splitting of the sheets between truly governmental functions and truly not governmental functions. If you can get that right, you can get the people right.

In Thompson's story, Jordan is quoted expressing what I guess might be Idea No. 18 on my imaginary bucket list for fixing IT: "We are following the HR rules now," she says.

Guess what? Sounds like they had to draw a big X on that one too. Jordan basically says since they started following the human resources rules -- i.e. not hiring people just because they belong to some church -- now they really can't recruit anybody for IT. That's why they want to go to an outside provider.

That's what got me thinking about all this. You know, every industry and agency has HR rules, mainly because of litigation. But HR is never how you hire anybody good. Somebody smart in the organization -- I mean smart about a task or operation, not a rocket scientist -- knows somebody smart outside the organization.

A contact is made, feelers extended. Somebody goes to lunch. There's another look-see meeting. References are checked way on the back channel because you can't legally do references on the formal channel any more. Terms are negotiated. Then whoever is the thumbs-up person gives the thumbs-up.

And then they tell the new recruit, "You got the job. Now go to HR and apply for the job."

It's all about people who are good at government knowing other people who would be good at government. They have bumped into each other in the world and crossed swords, so they have been able to take each others' measures.

People who are good at government do not know people who would be good at IT any more than a bunch of EMOs would be able to recruit people good at clogging. If they did accidentally stumble onto some good IT persons at a kids' soccer game, they couldn't pay them enough to keep them. And anyway, the good IT people would be too uncomfortable working with whoever is left from the Christian IT experiment.

But that doesn't mean government is bad. Government is good. At governing. It's bad at IT.

Now, our particular form of government is deficient in many ways. We have the weak city council, weak mayor, weak city manager system, or, as political scientists might call it, the weak-weak-weak system of municipal governance. Sometimes it's the buck-stops-nowhere system. Sometimes it's the what-buck-I-ain't-got-no-buck system.

And this is not Suhm's finest moment. This afternoon the council may have to vote on whether or not to write a big check for an outside consultant to come in and take over IT. Some council members said this morning they felt blindsided by the whole deal and wanted the question put off for 30 days. Suhm told them they had to pull the trigger right now.

It would be easy to look at all this and throw up our hands or just throw up. In fact, let's do that. But let's first remember that a given situation is not a universal truth about government.

OK, fingers down throats, all. Here we go -- the Dallas City Hall cheer!

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze