America’s Cities Are Running on Software From the ’80s
Even San Francisco’s tech chops can’t save it from relying on computers that belong in a museum.
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The only place in San Francisco still pricing real estate like it’s the 1980s is the city assessor’s office. Its property tax system dates back to the dawn of the floppy disk. City employees appraising the market work with software that runs on a dead programming language and can’t be used with a mouse. Assessors are prone to make mistakes when using the vintage software because it can’t display all the basic information for a given property on one screen. The staffers have to open and exit several menus to input stuff as simple as addresses. To put it mildly, the setup “doesn’t reflect business needs now,” says the city’s assessor, Carmen Chu.
San Francisco rarely conjures images of creaky, decades-old technology, but that’s what’s running a key swath of its government, as well as those of cities across the U.S. Politicians can often score relatively easy wins with constituents by borrowing money to pay for new roads and bridges, but the digital equivalents of such infrastructure projects generally don’t draw the same enthusiasm. “Modernizing technology is not a top issue that typically comes to mind when you talk to taxpayers and constituents on the street,” Chu says. It took her office almost four years to secure $36 million for updated assessors’ hardware and software that can, among other things, give priority to cases in which delays may prove costly. The design requirements are due to be finalized this summer.
For local officials throughout the country, the shift from old-school servers to rented cloud storage has made it tougher than ever to fund upgrades. They can budget physical equipment as capital expenses, meaning they could issue bonds to pay for them. But cloud computing is a service, as the people selling it love to say, which means officials have to pay for it with operating funds—the same pool of money that goes toward addressing more tangible demands, such as parks and cops. The deliberate pace of government compounds the problem of strained resources, says Marc Pfeiffer, a former New Jersey official who now advises municipalities on managing technology as part of Rutgers University’s Bloustein Local Government Research Center.
Businesses have started to see municipal woes as opportunities. Salesforce.com Inc., a maker of cloud-based applications that are being put to work on the assessor’s office project in the company’s hometown of San Francisco, has focused more on government solutions in the past five years. During an earnings call in August, co-Chief Executive Officer Keith Block called the public sector “one of our strongest verticals.” But cities and states are continuing to plow money into maintaining legacy systems, because they still work. Upgrades are difficult to start—and to finish—and attracting new skilled workers is expensive.
The impetus for change is often public outcry over a crisis, such as the chaotic 2009 crash of a disco-era computer system regulating traffic signals in Montgomery County, Md., or the cyberattacks that brought Atlanta’s government to a standstill last March. And promises to improve are no guarantee of success: Minnesota spent about a decade and $100 million to replace its ancient vehicle-licensing and registration software, but the new version arrived with so many glitches in 2017 that Governor Tim Walz has asked for an additional $16 million to fix it.
Of course, improvements cost money that constituents don’t always want to pay. “We’re dealing with an irrational public who wants greater and greater service delivery at the same time they want their taxes to be lower,” says Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute, an association for municipal tech officials.
In San Francisco the assessor uses a Cobol-based system called AS-400, whose welcome screen reads, “COPYRIGHT IBM CORP., 1980, 2009.” As the city tax rolls jumped 22 percent over two years, workers were struggling to keep track of the changes on their ancient systems. At one point they fell three years behind. It’s a “lot of manual work” just to perform basic functions, Chu says.
Searches that should seem simple take much longer because of the system’s quirks. If a resident contacts the agency saying her house should have a different assessed value, a worker has to look up the block and identification number that’s technically taxed; there’s no way to filter by address. Also, all street numbers need to have four digits, so 301 Grove St. becomes 0301 Grove St. Another problem: The system doesn’t flag data entry mistakes, such as if a worker misidentified 301 Grove St. as 0031 Grove St. An employee giving a homeowner a tax exemption can cause the break to be revoked the next year by entering a single wrong digit on a different screen. It would take a complaint by the overcharged resident to bring the error to light.
It’s taking what seems like forever to drag Chu’s office into the present century. After a bidding process, San Francisco awarded contracts in November to Sapient Corp. and Carahsoft Technology Corp., which provides the Salesforce software licenses. The new system, slated for completion in 2022, needs to address problems that can’t be solved in the App Store. Although tech companies like to fancy themselves altruists and world changers, Chu says they “have not really focused on solving the mundane problems of basic core government functions.” Private developers have created an app that lets people report poop on San Francisco streets. (It’s called Snapcrap. Yes, really.) Designing something to help the city pay for the cleanup? Different story.
Chicken Wire and Duct Tape
Municipal offices across the country are struggling to do their jobs with obsolete gear that can often be expensive and time-consuming to replace
Issue: The system for storing and tracking crime reports is more than 20 years old, doesn’t comply with the national incident reporting system, and can’t link to other databases.
Upgrade cost: $4 million
Broome County, N.Y.
Office of emergency services
Issue: Twelve different radio systems with portions dating to the 1970s prevent units from talking to one another.
Cost: $23 million
Issue: Case-tracking software to replace the Texas county’s outdated programs began development in 2012 but has faced repeated delays, leaving judges stuck with inefficient systems.
Cost: More than $30 million
Issue: A 1980s system for court records relies on typewriters. New software would ease the workload and reduce errors from having to repeatedly enter information.
Issue: The nation’s second-biggest commuter railroad uses paper forms to procure its equipment and supplies. It wants a central, digital inventory.
Issue: Control systems for most of the city’s 3,000 traffic signals date to the 1960s and make it harder for the department to manage congestion.
Cost (per intersection): $175,000 to $735,000
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