The Boston IT Party

The Boston IT Party

The city's CIO has a tall order: uniting the tribes through information technology.

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-Compare your challenges with those facing public sector CIOs.

-Discover how Boston's CIO is using IT to weld warring factions together.

-Learn how Boston's CIO plans to bring his city into the 21st century.

Boston is known not only for the tribalism of its distinctly bounded neighbourhoods but for the competing rivalries of its city departments, each intent on carving out as much financial and political clout as possible. Consider, for example, what happened on March 5, 1999: a Melrose, Massachusetts, bread delivery man was badly injured when his truck rolled over him at a South Boston warehouse. The victim, a man by the name of Carlos Calderon, waited nine minutes for an ambulance dispatched by the city's EMS department, even though a fire department ambulance was sitting only a mile away. The fire department was not notified of the emergency because it was feuding with the EMS over who got to answer which emergency calls. Carlos Calderon died of his injuries.

Calderon's death may, of course, be an extreme by-product of the city's historic turf battles. But there's no question that Craig Burlingame, the city's first-ever CIO, has a tall order: unite the tribes through information technology in order to deliver more services more efficiently to taxpayers.

In mending ancient rivalries, Burlingame, who came on board in November 2000, enjoys some very modern assets: a top-notch Internet link and an existing IT program already rated in the top third of its class. Governing magazine, which grades municipal governments on a variety of competencies, recently gave the city of Boston's IT a B, placing it solidly in the top third of the 35 cities ranked by the magazine's Government Performance Project. Governing's criteria included effective IT planning, timeliness of procurement, quality of training and ROI measurements, among others. (Altogether, the cities included in the ranking averaged a miserly C+.) Burlingame also has the support of an assertive mayor in his corner as well as a strong track record in government IT. But these two assets may prove a double-edged sword. Boston mayor Thomas Menino, an aggressive politician who seldom shows up late for a photo-op, wants IT he can brag about. Soon. And then there are those who suggest that importing a leader from the private sector could provide a good swift kick in the city's posterior. Plus there is the city's storied aversion to changing the way it does business. Alan Altshuler, a professor of urban policy at Harvard's John F Kennedy School of Government, once told The Boston Phoenix: "Boston is probably as resistant a culture as you would find anywhere in the country", owing largely to patronage and powerful municipal unions.

So while Burlingame has established a reputation as a strong government IT manager able to persuade disparate factions to cooperate, it's fair to wonder how well a man who is known for his easygoing style will do in the cut-and-thrust of Boston politics, where previous reform efforts have done about as well as the luckless Red Sox baseball team.

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