City should use technology to reduce its spending
Bill Green is a Philadelphia councilman at large The $3.8 billion budget for 2011 passed by City Council last week takes important steps toward reducing the size and cost of government, but we can, and must, do more.
is a Philadelphia councilman
The $3.8 billion budget for 2011 passed by City Council last week takes important steps toward reducing the size and cost of government, but we can, and must, do more.
Technology is the key to making the transition from budgets that grow every year to ones that reflect increased efficiency, productivity gains, and savings.
In the private sector, chief information officers must meet benchmarks, often 2 to 4 percent in productivity gains per year. The city should not be different.
I have introduced legislation to require an annual strategic plan listing savings targets to be achieved through the implementation of technology. The plan also pushes the city toward time- and money-saving electronic options for transactions between city employees and those between the city and its citizens.
Through the use of technology we can deliver services faster, with fewer people, and at lower cost. Some departments are doing just that. But these efforts are neither sufficiently coordinated nor linked to concrete workforce reduction targets. Any savings now being realized dissipate into the budgetary ether, rather than becoming tax reductions or expanded services.
Two facts show how we're missing an opportunity:
About 40 percent of the city's workforce will reach retirement age in the next five years.
The 2011 budget adds about 400 city positions over the next two years.
We should be using technology and attrition to reduce the size of our workforce, not grow it. And we can do this without negatively impacting services. After all, the current service level - which 77 percent of citizens are satisfied with, according to a recent Pew poll - is being provided while hundreds of positions are vacant, positions the administration wants to fill.
To cite just one example: The 2011 budget includes funding for five unfilled trainee positions in the city's 311 call center - positions that have been vacant for more than six months. Yet, as of December, the average wait time for calls to 311 was 18 seconds. I expect citizens would rather stay on hold a few seconds longer than have their taxes raised to hire more city employees.
A Pew report released last week - "Philadelphia's Crowded, Costly Jails: The Search for Safe Solutions" - offers a case study of how and why to press for reforms. The researchers found that the 13 percent drop in the city's jail population over the last 18 months was due primarily to policy decisions pursued through the Criminal Justice Advisory Board (CJAB), comprising stakeholders from across the criminal- justice system and local government (I serve as Council's representative). Those decisions generated savings of $10 million per year.
Millions in further savings are possible through innovations such as the use of electronic court notices and discovery, upgraded computer systems that prevent cases from being scheduled when police officers would have to be paid overtime for their appearance, and software that would allow the entry of guilty pleas at arraignments, the first stage in the court process.
These are a few small examples replicable throughout city government. Unfortunately, the administration fails to plan for the savings that would result from investing in technology. And that is why I, along with several of my colleagues, voted against the 2011 budget.