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Audit finds fault with city’s tech purchase system

Monday, November 1, 2021 by Jo Clifton

City procedures for purchasing technology are not coordinated, timely or sufficiently clear and do not ensure that city resources are secure and protected, according to a report from the Office of the City Auditor issued this month.

Auditors also said that the city “does not have a good understanding of its needs which may result in purchases not aligned with citywide goals.” Although the city has a tool for tracking technology purchases, the audit team found that tool was not working as needed. In addition, auditors noted that staff in different departments can purchase technology outside of the established process.

Auditors analogized the situation this way: “(I)magine you are living in a house with four other roommates who do not communicate much. Each of you goes to the grocery store and buys food, but none of you has a list or knows what is in the pantry before you go. When everyone gets home, how much food did you buy that was already in the house? How many of you bought the same thing? This is like how the city buys technology except the city’s process is on a much larger scale.”

As a result of systemic problems, the city lacks a complete inventory of its technology. Auditors noted in the report that they had issued recommendations for establishing a city technology inventory in two previous audits. They learned that the expected completion date of that inventory has been delayed to “sometime in 2022.”

Auditors also pointed out that the city does not know how much it spends each year on technology. According to the report, the Communications and Technology Management Department staff estimated the cost a few years ago but it was not complete at that time for two reasons. First, several groups in the city purchase technology. Second, some costs would not be reported because some technology is being purchased without being identified as technology. Auditors wrote, “We tried to determine the city’s cost for technology, but Budget Office staff said that they were not aware of any accurate citywide total for these costs.”

The city has one IT steering committee, but members of the committee told the audit team they did not know who is responsible for ensuring that technology purchases align with city goals. Also, one committee member told auditors that they generally defer to decision-makers within individual IT groups. “There does not seem to be a functioning group to facilitate collaboration or resolve differences of opinion among the city’s different IT groups,” according to the report.

The city has a cumbersome process for purchasing technology, including “planning, solicitation, negotiation, and award, and contract management.” However, planning for technology purchases typically does not follow that process; instead, individual departments use their own methods. The city has about 50 departments using different types of technology, and staff told auditors “a centralized technology purchasing process would be burdensome and further slow the flow of technology.” But auditors apparently disagreed, writing that the diversity of department needs and processes “demands a highly coordinated and functioning process be in place.”

Auditors found that there is a lack of strategic planning and that the purchases tend to be reactive, not keeping pace with industry changes. In addition, the city does not have a definition or has not communicated to staff what qualifies as technology, increasing the risk that a technology purchase will be made outside of the established process.

Management generally expressed agreement with recommendations in the audit, promising to establish a technology purchasing stakeholder team by the end of 2021. Their target date for providing options for the city manager’s consideration is Dec. 1, 2022. The group proposed to establish roles and responsibilities for the city’s new chief information officer, Chris Stewart, who started his job in mid-May. Stephen Elkins, the previous CIO, retired in September 2020.

Members of the City Council Audit & Finance Committee discussed the report at Wednesday’s meeting. Council Member Alison Alter, who chairs the committee, remarked that auditors had found that, on some occasions, the city purchased technology that was of no use to the city. She said she has been particularly involved in trying to promote digital equity throughout the city and wanted to make sure that any new plans for city computers involved appropriate recycling, including distribution to members of the community who might not otherwise have digital access. Stewart agreed to make sure that was part of any new system.

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