Organizational Planning

Moving Y2K from Mahogany Hall to Town Hall
 
By Gardner Trask December 16, 1998
 

Gardner TraskAs IS professionals, most of us have focused on our jobs, our companies, and our products with respect to Y2K issues. However, a major part of our lives may have gone unexamined, one which may affect us where we live, literally. Odds are your city or town has made no efforts to keep itself safe from Y2K.

While large county governments and major metropolitan cities may have been addressing the issues, many smaller towns do not have the resources or technical knowledge to even understand the monster at their door. And those that do may be laboring under the illusion that this is an information systems' problem with an information systems' solution. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What follows is a chronology of how several computer professionals banded together to help their local government understand and deal with the inevitable. Hopefully, this article should provide you with a blueprint to help your local government or non-profit organization face the realities of Y2K.

Civic Y2K - Ten Steps to Saving your City:

Step One: Understand your objective, define your scope.

Your job is to educate city officials and department heads as to the potential problems that Y2K presents. This transcends a meeting or two with the mayor. In our case, this task led us to form the City of BeverlyY2K Audit Committee. This committee, made up of citizen volunteers, was tasked with educating department heads and performing sample audits for each department to demonstrate potential areas of concern.

Understand that you are not going to be responsible for fixing the problem. The scope of your task is to educate the department heads and city officials about the problem. Let them fix it. Write this scope down, and refer to it often. Both you and the department heads need to keep clear that you are acting in an advisory capacity. This keeps people from presuming you are stepping on their toes, and prevents them from shifting the work and/or blame to your plate. Keep this message consistent and clear.

Step Two: Educate yourself.

Spend some time researching other municipal efforts. You will quickly learn the bulk of the problem is not the hardware/software issues you are used to dealing with, but includes problems with embedded systems and third-party services provided to the city. Elevators, fire trucks, police radios, burglar alarms, traffic lights, water pumping stations and drawbridge controls are but a few examples.

At this point you may be tempted to throw up your hands, declaring that you too have little knowledge of this type of issue. But remember, you have the benefit of already surviving the learning curve on Y2K. And remind yourself of your scope: your job is not to fix, but to educate.

Reading the City Of Beverly Y2K Audit Committee report may help. It can be found at www.GT3.COM\Y2K

Step Three: Understand the local political landscape.

The City of Beverly is a coastal community that lies about 25 miles northeast of Boston. It is a small bedroom community of about 40,000 residents. Its tax base is primarily residential (85%), and is governed by a mayor, and a nine-member city council made up of local residents.

This political structure meant that we had to deal equally with the mayor and the city council. Your town may have a Town Manager, or just a mayor, or just a board of aldermen. Understanding who to go to first will keep the lines of communication open. Also, knowing the residential/industrial mix allows you to define focus, and may provide professional allies in your community.

Step Four: Assume the Worst - find out the Reality.

Play this card carefully. What you really want to find out is if anyone outside the city's IS department even knows what Y2K is. First stop, the mayor. Make the pitch not only on the merits of doing the right thing technically, but play the budget card. The unanticipated replacement of a fire truck or sewer sub station can play havoc with any budget.

Step Five: Don't take 'Yes' for an answer.

That is, don't accept a blanket "It's covered" from the mayor or IS shop. While you have been focusing on the hardware/software issues in your company, they too may have the same scope in mind. Your job is to educate them on how much more pervasive this problem is. Nothing gets their attention faster than the thought of failing police and fire vehicles, elevators that don't work in the senior housing, kids without milk because the supply chain broke down. Its fatalistic I agree, but sometimes it takes a two-by-four to get their attention.

Remember, you have to live with any failures they make. If you are content their plans and actions are sufficient, sleep soundly, you've done your job. However, if there is still a nagging voice wondering if you have enough firewood and candles and freeze dried food on hand, you better take the next step. Always remember, it's YOUR town. The mayor and city council are YOUR employees. You hired them, and they HAVE to respond to you.

If all else fails, remember they are all political animals at heart. Start writing letters to the editors of your local papers. You will soon find out the power of the pen with respect to local politics. This however is a last resort. Use it sparingly.

Step Six: Get a champion, then get that committee formed.

Remember, you're still an outsider in the political forum. Get your local ward councilor, or neighborhood civic representative behind you. Educate them first. Then follow proper procedures for the creation of a citizen board. Your city charter has details on this, or call the city clerk.

Go into this with a clear plan in mind. Get one or two IS savvy friends, get a city council representative you can work with. Invite someone from the school department, and someone from the city's IS department. Suggest people who understand the problem or at least understand IS. Minimize spending time educating the committee. You have bigger fish to fry.

Step Seven: Get buy-in from the top.

Now comes the hard part. Have the mayor or town manager send a letter to all department heads announcing the committee, its scope, and the fact that they as department heads have to meet with you. In our case, we gave a sample letter to the mayor briefly explaining the problems at hand. The mayor HAS to make this a priority issue for the department heads.

Step Eight: Make it easy, make it personal.

Remember, these department heads have no idea who you are and why they should spend time with you. First thing, schedule meetings that are easy for them to attend. Many cities and towns have extended hours one weeknight. Schedule your meetings then. Consistency is the key. Meet every week at the same time in the same place. It should take you only 6 weeks or so to hit all the major departments. The city clerk can set you up with a room and post your meetings as is required by charter.

Now make it personal. When talking to the fire department, come up with scenarios, think out of the box, go over your checklist then start brainstorming. Talk about the equipment they carry, the lights, the breathing equipment, the saws and defibrillators and the radio dispatch. Get into their heads and make it a personal issue. Also play on their purse strings. Make them realize they should plan now, and spread any potential purchases over as many budgets as possible.

Once again, I suggest looking at the City of Beverly Y2K audit committee report. It has a fine general checklist, as well as department-specific issues we found. Use it as a guide. Perhaps even distribute it at your meeting.

And remember, your job is not to fix, but to educate. They have to do a detailed audit, they have to send letters to manufacturers, they have to replace equipment. NOT YOU.

Step nine: Report and recommend.

In defining the committee, you should place a time limit, and report back to the council as soon after that as is possible. Our committee took 4 months from inception, through forming the committee, through doing the interviews, to finally reporting to the city.

When you make your report, do so in an open and advertised meeting. Make sure the mayor, city council, and high officials are present. Believe me, the best champion you will get is a department head, city solicitor, or city accountant who is afraid of lawsuits or budget crunches. Also, the local media will kill for copies of your report. Make it easy for them to help you.

Recommendations are easy, and I suggest you look at ours as a guideline.

Your official work is done. On this you have to be clear. The ball is no longer in your court. At the end of the meeting, ask for a close of the committee and disband it.

Step Ten: Follow-up

Great. By now you have done your civic duty. One more item on your social contract can be checked off. But_

Remember. They knew nothing of this before. They learned a great deal in the process, and hopefully you impressed upon them the limited time to solve this problem.

Don't assume this is their top priority, but follow up every month or two and chat about progress. And if necessary, go right back into the mayor's office.

Conclusion:

The problem is yours to solve. You know the issues, they do not. You can educate them. And yes, it looks daunting, but do you blissfully trust that all is well in Any Town, USA?

And remember two things:
Your job is not to fix, but to educate.
If not now, when? If not you, who?

Read Gardner Trask's Bio



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