Cambridge Information Technology Department Gets Failing Grades, Study Reports

Cambridge Information Technology Department Gets Failing Grades, Study Reports

Cambridge under-invests in technology and its overwhelmed IT department performs poorly

An independent study of Cambridge's Information Technology Department (ITD) shows that Cambridge under-invests in technology compared to peer cities and that ITD lacks the organizational maturity, skills, and expertise to meet growing technology needs. The $200,000 study was released to the City Council and public the same week as a City budget proposal in which ITD, unlike every other City department, provides no list of accomplishments, no metrics about performance, nor any breakdown of its budget request beyond a total dollar figure. The budget request, shown in its entirety, is above.

The six-month study (PDF), conducted by leading information technology consulting firm, Gartner, reviewed in depth the strengths and weaknesses of Cambridge and provides an objective framework to understand issues that are otherwise observable only as anecdotal complaints. For example, this week's policy order by the Council, requesting more space for email storage, would seem an indication of problems as elected officials should not have to resort to full-fledged policy orders for something that should be routine. The Gartner report provides ample evidence that this is part of a pattern of inconsistent process and poor communications that hobbles Cambridge's use of technology.

To understand the Gartner report, it's useful to compare information technology to a business that one is more familiar to most, say, McDonalds. McDonalds decides what products it wants to sell to its customers, and then develops processes to make sure that it can reliably and repeatably provide them. A Big Mac in Cambridge should be virtually identical to one in Kalamazoo and if you return for a Big Mac in Cambridge, it should be identical even if it's made by completely different people.

The first, and in Gartner's view most important, finding is that Information Technology in Cambridge lacks a formal governance process, or, to put this in MacDonalds terms, it decides what products to "sell" informally and inconsistently. This is deeply corrosive to an organization because, if you can't decide what's important to do, it's difficult to do anything well, or satisfy customers. In City Manager Robert Healy's cover letter to the report, he says the city concurs with that assessment and will be working to develop formal governance.

Gartner's report goes on to assess the capabilities of ITD, measuring it against what, in its experience, can be reasonably expected of a technology group in a city like Cambridge. As Gartner measures them, Cambridge's technology, processes and organization all do not reach the level of maturity expected. To put this in McDonalds terms, the grills and fryolators are substandard, the Big Macs are being made inconsistently from one time to another, and the staff isn't being adequately led to be prepared for the day to day delivery of Big Macs, let alone the lunch rush.

Gartner has also found that, compared to cities it selected as peers to Cambridge, Cambridge under-invests in information technology. According to Gartner, "Cambridge spends 1.96%** of its operating budget on IT, far below the peer average of 2.9%. peers allocate 48% more of their operating budget to IT." Further, "[t]he City of Cambridge percentage of IT staff to total City staff is 2.28%*, significantly trailing the peer average of 3.2%. Consequently, peers average 40% more IT staff than the City of Cambridge." But at each mention of "peers", Gartner provides a footnote, indicating that Cambridge, unhappy with the analysis provided by the consultants it engaged, selected its own list of Massachusetts municipalities with which to compare itself. While Gartner selected its list of peer cities to match the size of Cambridge government, Cambridge lists 8 cities that range in size from Boston to Watertown and seems satisfied that Cambridge spends more than most. Only Somerville, a city that's becoming a model for lean, agile information technology and open data, spends more.

A budget that lacks any definition of projects or cost allocation is in keeping with a department whose internal processes are deficient. But, despite supplying no budgetary justification, the Manager's budget submission requests a 13% increase, bringing Cambridge's IT budget from $3,989,230 to $4,491,330. One needs to refer to the overall Finance Division budget to discover:

The FY14 Finance Department Budget includes the following additions to the ITD Division: $142,255 for a Network Manager position; $200,000 in salary and wages to support the ITD strategic plan; $142,765 increase in other ordinary maintenance accounts to cover the cost increases related to ongoing maintenance agreements and technical support; and $9,800 in travel and training for software training and professional development.

The Finance Division budget also includes Information Technology "accomplishments" that have yet to actually occur:

  • Enhanced iReport application to include un-shoveled sidewalks, traffic signal outages, traffic signs missing/damaged, bike rack repair and unplowed streets.
  • Upgraded streaming video of City Council meetings to allow streaming on mobile devices such as smart phones or tablets.
  • Implemented mobile websites for City homepage, Police, Public Works and Library which supports all mobile platforms including iOS, Android, Windows and Blackberry.

As of the writing of this article, almost a week after the submission of the document, iReport does not allow the reporting of traffic signs or signals, bike racks or unplowed streets, streaming video does not to work on mobile devices tested by this writer, and the city homepage appears unchanged on IOS.

The City Council's Finance Committee takes up the City's Information Technology budget during its all-day meeting, Tuesday April 30th.

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I am struggling with the new web-interface for CCTV, so by error I posted my comment under another of your recent stories. Under the old system I could edit any of my written materials to account for typos, and I could even choose to take something entirely down if necessary by blanking the screen. How does one do that with the new system?


On the matter of the Cambridge IT study :

.....I am concerned with this consultant report on the City Information Technology program. It will probably increase the trend towards centralization of control and will complicate the communications for all city agencies. I am worried about creation of new coordinating committees, procedural memoranda, and the hiring of additional consultant services to implement the plan. For computer work, it is very important not to need to go through several layers of bureaucracy in order to get decisions made, and this consultant "strategic plan" appears to be another incredible venture into complexity.

.....It is dangerous to subscribe to the idea that automatically we should assume that spending more money on advanced software. Windows 8 is not a great improvement over Windows 7, and the sales figures show this clearly. Recently I needed to needed to use a wireless service to review and download some YouTube videos. First I tried with Linux, and was unable to download the necessary video plug-in. Next I tried with with Windows 7, and initially had some success and then lost my wireless connection and could not get it back. I tried Windows Vista and had no luck. Finally I tried an eight year old version of Windows XP and it worked fine, with only one crash. Then I tried a six-year-old version of Linux Mandriva, and that worked too. Stunning, the old programs worked and the new ones did not.

.....Now we have a new CCTV interface. For NeighborMedia, it seems to be easier to post comments, but harder to post a new blog. Congratulations on having figured out how to post your blog. I am still trying to figure it out.

Steve Kaiser



For enterprise-level computer systems, something with which I have decades of experience, you absolutely need governance committees to set priorities.

And, in the details of the report, you can see just what isn't getting done because there isn't enough money. The point here is that information technology should be considered an asset into which the City invests, not a service center whose costs must be minimized.

I couldn't agree with you more about Windows upgrades. The City could certainly save some money there by not upgrading in lock step, but that pales in comparison to what's not getting done because w're underinvesting.