Dallas City Hall has a $168 million ‘tech debt.’ How did it get so bad?

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Technology seems to become obsolete almost as fast as it’s invented these days, and Dallas City Hall has shown that keeping up is a struggle.

A lack of investment and effective management of the city’s technology infrastructure over many years has resulted in a buildup of projects that need money and attention. In December, staff from Dallas’ Information and Technology Services updated council members on a plan for more efficient management of technology resources. And, as with most such updates, there is a price tag attached.

It’s a good thing the city is finally working on this plan, but it took too long to get to this point. As of December, the city has about $168 million in what’s called “technical debt,” Bill Zielinski, Dallas’ chief information officer, said during the meeting.

Zielinski explained during the December presentation that having technical debt means having technology that doesn’t do what it needs to. Like any other kind of debt, it becomes increasingly difficult and costly to manage when it builds up too much. That can cause serious problems for the city and how it delivers services.

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Last year’s ransomware attack, for example, affected police, courts, 311 and multiple city websites. It took months to clean up, and the city had to spend $4 million on a cyberattack detection system. It was a worthy purchase, but it shouldn’t have been made retroactively, and it highlights the need to keep on top of technology and to budget adequately to handle it.

Dallas, we have an information technology problem

We asked the city why this has taken so long to address. The city’s press office pointed to a Forrester Research survey indicating that a buildup of ineffective tech is common, and that Dallas IT staff have provided regular updates to the city about how to remediate it in monthly reports since August 2022.

Just because it might be a common problem doesn’t mean it should be a city problem. Effective management means being ahead of the pack, not part of it.

A technology accountability report from March describes a seven-year plan to address the problem, beginning with the highest priority areas first and gradually tapering off to lower ones. The idea is to get to consistent monitoring and management that the city should have already had in place.

During the presentation, Zielinski brought a complete map depicting all the city’s technical systems and which departments are using them. Printed out to a readable scale, the map was about 60 feet long with two rows, he said.

The city has nearly 900 independent IT systems used across over 40 departments, and Zielinski said that in his experience since 2020, there have been far too many application failures that have caused business loss. His goal is to reduce that as much as possible.

Better late than never, certainly, but we wish Dallas had a clearer management plan in place sooner to save both money and loss in time and work.

Budgeting and managing technology properly is part of every modern organization’s bread and butter work. Dallas needs to get this right every budget cycle.

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