Can an Economic Divide Lead to a Digital Decline in Government?

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Good Evening:

First, a caution. What follows comes from someone with zero training in economics and IT, so please treat this as–at best–hopelessly uninformed speculation.

When describing to co-workers my problems with the website of the Superior Court of San Francisco, the conversation naturally evolved to a discussion of the problems Human Resources at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has had with multiple other cloud services, databases, websites and other platforms maintained by other City departments. Design errors, software bugs, and other blunders on these platforms have negatively impacted our work over the past two years. We have written book-length material on the subject.

I don’t want to get myself into too much trouble if the wrong people read this, so I will confine myself to one deliberately vague example. If you ever apply for any job with the City & County of San Francisco, consider yourself warned. I recently found a bug that randomly deleted the job applications of qualified applicants from certain lists. Yeah, not good for the applicants, not good at all.

At this point, you have probably asked yourself this question: “Shouldn’t San Francisco, the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley, have better databases, websites, software and IT than any other major city in America?”

No, if my hypothesis is correct, it shouldn’t.

Remember, what follows consists of uninformed speculation.

But if my uninformed speculation has any validity, theoretically San Francisco should have significantly worse databases, websites, software and IT than any other major city in America. It’s a simple matter of economics.

When you look at the job openings at sfgov.org, you will see that the IT positions have salaries ranging from $80,000 – $140,000. Which might sound pretty good. In reality, it sucks. Why on earth would anyone desire a 1043 IS Engineer – Senior job paying at most $128,414 when they can hire themselves out to companies that pay 3 – 4 times as much for the same work? In fact, $500,000 might not suffice to entice some professionals. The latest urban legend to hit San Francisco (i.e., believe none of this without independent verification) tells the story of a programmer who turned down a job paying a half-million dollars because he had another offer paying three million. Not a misprint, but remember, it’s just an urban legend at this time.

Why would the best & brightest work for the worst & dimmest compensation? That’s just bad economics at the individual level. But think of how that affects all citizens of San Francisco, even the ones who make a half-million. Sooner or later, we will all need City services, but how good will those services be if the IT supporting them was designed by people earning 1/4 what people earn at <fill in the blank> company? I must emphasize right now that the City’s IT folks consist of VERY dedicated, hard-working individuals who put in long hours maintaining computer systems that turned antiquated long before they even graduated from junior high school. Nonetheless, they remain not-half-million-dollar people. They remain $128K people.

Theoretically, (have I mentioned that this all constitutes uninformed speculation?) the quality of San Francisco services could decline to the point where all of our websites are as bad as Superior Court’s, although to be fair I did find one computer in the office that does display their website correctly and with current information. One. This decline in the City & County of San Francisco’s IT (technically, we’re a “Consolidated City-County“) would mean that no matter who you are, no matter how rich you are, and no matter what your problem, a fallen tree or a heart attack, you might not receive help in a timely matter.

So the point of my uninformed speculation consists of this question: will the economic divide between very rich Americans and the rest of America lead to a situation where local government can no longer adequately serve any of us? It seems possible that if in the future IT workers in governments consist mostly of people who couldn’t get the good-paying jobs in the private sector, then the quality of government for all Americans could suffer. We might not be able to execute routine maintenance on our infrastructure as efficiently and economically as possible. We might not be able to respond to natural disasters as well or as quickly as possible. Worst yet, local, state and federal entities might become more vulnerable to cyberattacks from hostile groups that would never work against the firewalls in the private sector erected and maintained by million-dollar programmers.

However, I might have mentioned that what I’ve written consists of uninformed speculation. If I am completely off-base to the point where my musings are unfit for human consumption, I won’t mind at all if you correct my misapprehensions.

Thanks in advance for any corrections.

Vonn Scott Bair

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One response »

  1. Fellow uninformed speculator here.

    1) Not everyone is most highly motivated by personal economics. Some of us are more highly motivated by beliefs. That’s part (but not all) of why i’ve never earned more than about $35,000 a year, and for most of my working life, well under half that. Belief in what i was doing and where i was working mattered more than the take-home pay (as long as i had enough to survive).

    2) If the government does less and the private sector does more, there will be less exposure for issues with suboptimal government IT.

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