|911 Whitewash? Leaders Say the Transition to Consolidated Emergency Dispatch in Scott County Has Gone Well. It Should Have Gone Better.|
|News/Features - Feature Stories|
|Written by Jeff Ignatius|
|Thursday, 10 November 2011 11:00|
(This is the first of two articles on the Scott Emergency Communications Center. This piece focuses on implementation problems with emergency-response consolidation. The second part will deal with the price tag and to what extent taxpayers have gotten what they were promised.)
Let’s start with the metaphors.
We’re roughly six months into the transition to a consolidated Scott County emergency-dispatch and -records system, said Davenport City Administrator Craig Malin on October 6. “This is the part of the movie where ... the anxiety is. Then there’s the resolution at the end, and there’s a happy ending. We’re at that point where we’re going to be focusing on what the issues are.”
“In a crawl/walk/run category, we stood up and got wobbly,” said Bettendorf City Administrator Decker Ploehn, also on October 6. “But we’re still standing. But we’re not walking yet. But we’re pretty much not crawling, either. So we’re working our way forward, and we hope to get to running. And I think we’re going to get to running; we’re not there yet.”
The Scott Emergency Communications Center (SECC) brings under one roof – at 1100 East 46th Street in Davenport – what had been four dispatching centers, serving Scott County’s 12 municipal and county law-enforcement agencies, 16 fire departments, and five ambulance services.
All those agencies are now using the same radio system, and law-enforcement agencies are also using a single record-keeping system – both of which allow for improved interdepartmental communication. Agencies went live with the system from early April through early May.
Still to come – probably early next year – is the consolidation of each organization’s dispatchers into a single dispatching entity, and the separation of call-taking and dispatching functions. The latter of those is expected to shave 30 seconds off the time it takes to dispatch emergency responders.
And late next year, Medic EMS will decide whether to fold its dispatching operations into SECC or just continue to have its dispatchers working out of the SECC building.
By the standards of local government, the project is complicated. “It takes a good solid year to iron out” issues and difficulties, said SECC Director Brian Hitchcock, who previously oversaw consolidations in Ashland County, Wisconsin, and McHenry County, Illinois. “Every one of those has issues and bugs that have to be worked out. ... We all wish it could happen overnight.” He noted that every consolidation takes a different amount of time to work through, but that the one-year estimate runs through next April.
The consolidation – recommended by a 2006 study and put into motion by a December 2007 intergovernmental agreement – is also expensive, with capital costs of roughly $28 million. The building itself cost $7.31 million. New portable radios for all agencies cost almost $7 million, purchased without a formal bidding process. Installing a “central electronics bank and associated communications gear into and around the 911 center” cost more than $1.6 million, Hitchcock said. And the dispatching and record-keeping software that has been so problematic cost $2.7 million.
The current operational budget of the SECC is nearly $7.2 million, which includes almost $665,000 in debt service. Outside of operations, the current Scott County budget includes nearly $915,000 in debt service for SECC equipment.
The project’s cost is one reason the SECC bears scrutiny. Beyond that, the tax levy that funds the SECC – unlike those of school districts and municipal governments – is uncapped, meaning that there’s the potential for taxpayers to be on the hook for any runaway costs that might occur. And although four of the five voting members of the SECC board are elected officials, they aren’t directly elected by voters to that board, so there isn’t the typical accountability for expenditures or performance.
Eldridge resident Diane Holst, who has regularly raised questions about the consolidation process, said she wants to make sure taxpayer money is being well-spent. “If we’re paying that kind of money, let’s make sure it works, that we’re getting what we’re paying for,” she said. “When they [officers] say it’s all fine. Then I’ll quit raising questions.”
At this point, though, there are still plenty of questions. The positive tone of administrators is a sharp contrast to what’s being said outside of public forums.
“Bettendorf went live [in April] and had problems; two weeks later the county and rural departments went live and had problems; another two weeks went by and Davenport went live and had problems,” said one police officer to whom I talked. “Why didn’t we stop then and regroup until these problems were resolved?”
“The Implementation Has Not Been Successful”
A September 28 memo to Hitchcock from consultant Deltawrx is bluntly critical of how the transition was managed, particularly with the computer-aided dispatch, mobile-computing, and records-management systems from Michigan-based vendor New World Systems (NWS). That is admittedly just one aspect of the consolidation, yet it’s also one that emergency responders use all the time.
“Patrol officers are angry and have lost confidence in the software,” the memo states. “Agencies are devoting time, energy, and resources to working with NWS to fix and test broken software. The frustration level of the Davenport Police Department is so high that it is threatening to revert to its legacy software application. Bettendorf and some rural agencies have already reverted to using Mobile Cop to run NCIC [National Crime Information Center] queries in the car.”
It summarizes: “By any measure, the implementation of the NWS applications has not been successful. The software does not work to the specifications proposed, end users are frustrated and angry, administration is devoting already scarce resources and time to fix something that should not be broken, and accountability for problems is almost nonexistent.”
Last month, the SECC board approved a $30,000 contract with Deltawrx to address some of the issues cited in its memo. The proposal includes activities into February.
This indicates that the SECC acknowledges problems in implementation and is committed to fixing them.
Yet the SECC could have retained Deltawrx earlier for $80,000 to monitor and troubleshoot the entire NWS implementation process. While one SECC board member praised the decision to bring Deltawrx back now – thus saving $50,000 – Scott County Administrator Dee Bruemmer said she wished that the consultant had been kept on.
Furthermore, while the Deltawrx memo relays cautious optimism from police departments that problems can be fixed, those issues and their causes might have some long-term negative effects: The memo expresses a skepticism that the New World Systems software will ever be embraced. “All agency representatives with whom Deltawrx spoke ... expressed a desire for the system to work,” the memo says. “Some people did express doubt that it would be possible to fix the problems, and others are concerned that end-users will never accept the NWS software, even if it works as intended.”
While the memo says that “dwelling on the past to place blame is not a useful exercise if SECC and SECC agencies want to move forward,” it adds that “what happened in the past to bring SECC and SECC agencies to this point in time does bear on our recommendations for moving forward.”
The report identifies eight problems in the transition to NWS software:
• “Expedited implementation”;
• “Unstructured functional testing”;
• “Ineffective system-build sessions”;
• “Condensed training”;
• “Software that does not meet contractual obligations”;
• “Ineffective customer support from NWS”;
• “SECC support structure”; and
• “Vague information-system-management structure.”
Many of those shortcomings appear to flow from the first. The Deltawrx report says: “Despite warnings to the contrary, SECC moved forward with a 14-month implementation schedule for systems that typically take 18 to 24 months to implement under the best circumstances. ... To expedite the implementation, shortcuts were taken; training was compressed and systematic testing was not conducted. When the system was cut over to live operations, NWS had not yet developed key software modules and interfaces, and promised functionality was missing or not working as intended.”
Malin, Ploehn, and Bruemmer (all nonvoting, ex officio members of the SECC board), as well as SECC Director Hitchcock, sounded a similar refrain: Yes, there have been problems and bugs during the consolidation, but that’s to be expected in such a massive endeavor. And most aspects of consolidation have gone well.
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Audio interview with Craig Malin, Decker Ploehn, Dee Bruemmer, and Brian Hitchcock (58 minutes)
“I think the big picture is heading in the right direction,” Malin said. “We have an implementation issue with one component of the software package that we need to work through. ... The records system isn’t where we need it to be in order to do our operations as efficiently as we did in the past.”
“We are as pleased as we had anticipated we would be at this point in time,” Ploehn said.
And both Ploehn and Malin said that shifting the costs of dispatching from their cities to the county has allowed them to both lower their municipal property-tax rates while funding additional services and projects. (The second part of this article – to be published in the November 23 edition of the River Cities’ Reader – will deal with the question of whether the consolidation has saved taxpayers money.)
Bruemmer, Malin, Ploehn, and Hitchcock were all asked via e-mail to comment on the Deltawrx memo, and specifically whether they felt the project was rushed at the expense of results.
Bruemmer wrote: “All staffs are working through the issues with a forward-look approach. It is always easy to be a Monday-morning quarterback. I decline to take that position.”
Malin wrote that he agreed with Deltawrx’s assessment of the current situation, the causes, and the recommendations. But he said claiming that “expedited implementation” caused most of the problems cited in the memo “goes beyond Deltawrx’s report. I also don’t accept the premise that 14 months isn’t enough time to do the work that needed to be done by NWS.”
Hitchcock added in an e-mail: “There were no warnings given [by Deltawrx] not to implement in the 14-month timeframe. When being presented the New World Systems software and again in contract negotiations with New World Systems, they were well aware of the timelines involved in the project. They did indicate that these projects usually take from 18 to 24 months. When New World Systems was asked if the 14-month implementation would be a problem, they indicated that it would not be; it would just take a little extra work. NWS also indicated that they have made implementations in as little as 12 months. ... SECC relied on the ability and experience of New World Systems to assist us in guiding this project to completion. Testing and training were performed based on recommendations from New World Systems. At no time did New World Systems indicate that the project needed to be delayed prior to the implementation.”
Ploehn deferred to Hitchcock.
SECC board members – Scott County Board of Supervisors Chair Tom Sunderbruch, Bettendorf Mayor Mike Freemire, Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba, Eldridge Mayor Marty O’Boyle, and Medic EMS Board President James Lehman – were also given the opportunity to respond to the Deltawrx memo.
Sunderbruch acknowledged that “most of the ‘key factors contributing to the current situation’ flow from the first: ‘expedited implementation.’ However, I was not involved on a day-to-day basis, and Brian Hitchcock, who was/is involved on a day-to-day basis, takes issue with some of those findings, and I have confidence and trust in his reports.”
He added: “Hindsight is great and, of course, deadlines could have been pushed back if problems were known ahead of time. To my knowledge, that was not the case.”
Freemire and Lehman wrote that they agreed with Sunderbruch’s assessment. “I think Chairman Sunderbruch did an excellent job of capturing the essence of the issues,” Freemire wrote.
At press time, Gluba and O’Boyle had not responded to the November 4 e-mail request.
“Frustrating to the Street-Level Officers”
As with any project of this magnitude, there have been hiccups, and many of them have been solved or are in the process of being solved.
The purchase of bi-directional amplifiers improved radio coverage in the Hillandale area of Davenport and Lake Canyada. (The Hillandale amplifier was paid for by the SECC because that gap was anticipated by radio vendor RACOM and therefore beyond its obligation to provide coverage for 95 percent of the geographic area of Scott County. RACOM paid for the Lake Canyada amplifier.) Another amplifier for Buffalo – the SECC’s responsibility – has been ordered.
RACOM has also applied for a license for two additional frequencies from the Federal Communications Commission to handle radio traffic in northwest Davenport.
And many bugs and issues have been addressed in the New World software.
SECC Technology Systems Coordinator Gloria Fitzpatrick, a former Davenport dispatcher, noted one example. When the New World Systems software connected to the state’s NCIC database, it originally produced results based on a driver’s license number; that parameter was too narrow, officers said. So it was expanded to include a person’s name and date of birth, but that parameter was too broad because it looked at a range around the birthdate and variations on name spelling.
This wasn’t a software bug, she said: “It was working as designed.” Because this was New World’s first consolidation in Iowa, the search parameters with the state computers needed to be refined. “The issue is: How can we better define that?”
Since then, Fitzpatrick said, a sex parameter and a new work flow were implemented, and “those complaints are not coming in anymore.”
Other fixes are promised under a software updated delivered to SECC on September 15. “ We are still testing [that release] ... to ensure we are thorough,” Hitchcock wrote in an e-mail November 4.
Bettendorf had several issues with the New World software.
Police Chief Phil Redington said that after going live on April 5, his department was dissatisfied with the module that ran license plates and driver’s licenses. In May, he said, the department reverted to its old Mobile Cop system for those functions. The New World software, he said, “was slower than we liked, so we went back to Mobile Cop. ... Mobile Cop was easier to read, ... and it was quicker.”
Redington said several other factors were at work. Officer safety “was part of it,” he said, as was officers’ comfort level. “We thought it was important at that time, since we were on a whole new system, that we would go back to Mobile Cop to ease some of the stress of going to a new system ... ,” he said. “Our officers were comfortable with it.”
Ploehn wrote on November 4: “We are still on Mobile Cop as the interface to the State and the National Crime Information Center. The New World fix has moved to a back burner simply because Mobile Cop is what the officers are familiar with, and it is functional in the New World system. Once all of the other issues are resolved, we will make the comparison and determine what is more functional for the officers.”
Bettendorf also had difficulty initially with the “merge” process that takes approved field records and incorporates them into the SECC database; records weren’t being merged. Redington estimated that issue was resolved by early May.
On August 31, KWQC aired a report on the SECC, focusing on the complaints of Eldridge Police Chief David M. Kopatich. He highlighted connectivity problems and reports being rejected because of time parameters, and he expressed overall frustration: “Are we going to reach a point where we decide to pick up our toys and go back to our old system? We may end up doing that.”
In a September 28 article in the North Scott Press, Kopatich reiterated his concerns and said he’d gotten positive feedback from officers for speaking out. The article states: “Many high-ranking officials, including individuals at the SECC and administration from other police departments, were not as enthusiastic about Kopatich’s discussion with the media.” The chief responded: “The truth hurts sometimes.”
In the KWQC story, Scott County Sheriff Dennis Conard praised the New World system but acknowledged some problems with implementation: “There probably should have been a lot more testing of the different applications,” he said. “But we’re still having trouble getting the different applications that are fixed tested because that’s above and beyond the normal workload.”
Conard – whose office referred an interview request for this article to Bruemmer – said that police officers are generally impatient, and Redington agreed.
“It’s been a slow process, but it’s progressing,” said Redington. “We would have liked to have it gone smoother at the beginning. ... It’s a learning process for all of us.”
His department had undergone a similar computer-system switch in 2003, he said, and “we experienced some of the same frustration from time to time ... . Eventually, the bugs got worked out. ... We knew that in some respects, working through the bugs is normal.”
About New World bugs and problems, he said: “I feel confident that the path we’re on, eventually things will smooth out and that we’ll be in pretty good shape. ... Every week, it seems like we’re making progress. If I couldn’t say that, then my attitude would be a little different.”
Hitchcock said that since the August KWQC story, “there has been resolution to a number of issues.”
In an interview October 29, Kopatich said that things have improved. “So far our connectivity has been a lot better ... as far as running plates, getting plates to come back. ... It has slowly improved probably ever since the original [KWQC] news story has come out.”
As for time parameters, Fitzpatrick said: “That was a training problem.”
Kopatich said that he and his officers aren’t doing anything differently with those parameters, but “we are not having any other problems with date parameters on reports at this time.”
The issues that remain sound relatively minor.
For example, there’s a filter at the server level to “‘limit’ the access [to unit-status information] to help with connectivity issues,” Hitchcock wrote on November 4 of the ability for a computer in the SECC system to “see” on-duty vehicles and officers. “For example, instead of having the updates for all 300 units that may be listed as on-shift (police units, detectives, fire rigs, and so on), they will see the specific range of units for the agencies permitted (i.e., LeClaire PD may see two units for Princeton, one for McCausland, [and] seven for Bettendorf, as well as their own three units – or Davenport will only see their agency based on what they requested to see). ... With the release of the newest version, units in the field will be able to see all units within Scott County. This version will be released shortly after field testing has been completed and approved by Deltawrx.”
Yet some of the frustrations with the New World Systems software are not fixable. Reports on the New World Systems software, Kopatich said, take an additional 10 to 15 minutes apiece to complete. “It requires the street-level officer to do more work to get it to that end result,” he said.
And extra steps in the records-management component – requiring reports to be approved by a supervisor and then “merged” into the system – can create delays in officers being able to access information, even if it was generated within the same department. If a report is rejected by a supervisor at the end of a shift, for instance, an officer might not be able to resubmit it to the supervisor until the next day or even later. Previously, there was easy intradepartmental access to records prior to supervisor approval.
And even as problems are getting fixed, that doesn’t change that officers have been frustrated, that they’re therefore less confident in the system, and that resources have been usurped by problems that Deltawrx said could have been avoided.
Kopatich said he likes the idea behind consolidation. “I’m all for the agencies sharing information,” he said. “Maybe in time, it’s all going to work, and I hope that it does, but the implementation of it is frustrating to the street-level officers that are using the system.”
He added in an e-mail: “Providing the software keeps improving and becomes what we were promised, we will continue to keep using it for the common goal of consolidation.”
Asked whether he thought many of the issues police have dealt with since spring could have been resolved prior to going live, he said, “I would have hoped so.”
“More Than 90 Percent Is Working”
The company line from SECC’s director and Bettendorf’s and Davenport’s city administrators is that police agencies need to be patient. They stressed that problems with New World do not negatively impact the speed of dispatching or officer or public safety.
“It does not affect our ability to get an officer on the scene,” Hitchcock said. In a later interview, he said: “None of this that we’re dealing with deals with officer safety. This is all about reporting ... .”
Ploehn said that “I am not aware nor is Chief Redington aware of any situations” in which public or officer safety has been compromised by SECC software or equipment.
Some people with whom I talked said they were concerned that difficulty connecting with the NCIC database to run plates and licenses could have resulted in officers not knowing that they were approaching somebody who could pose a significant threat.
Hitchcock dismissed that concern: “They pick up the mic, they call the dispatch center, and they have them run it.”
“I think some of the officers said that,” Ploehn said of concerns with running plates and licenses. I asked whether they were wrong, and he said officers were resistant to change: “‘It wasn’t what I did two days ago. ... It was different,’” he said. But “the ability to call in was still there.”
Overall, the administrators emphasized, many things have gone well and as planned with the consolidation.
“Ninety percent of this is working,” Malin said. “More than 90 percent is working.”
Malin extolled the virtues of the consolidation for the emergency-response process. “The project has created the most cohesive communications system that we’ve ever had in Scott County,” he said. “We are seeing a much bigger picture than we’ve had the capability before ... . I think there are significant efficiencies built in over the long haul. Residents in the City of Davenport aren’t paying twice for dispatch services anymore.”
Malin and Ploehn also said that the consolidation has allowed their cities to undertake projects that wouldn’t have happened – at least not on that scale – without the emergency-dispatch consolidation. While Scott County property-tax rates are higher overall because of the SECC levy, the rates for the two cities have dropped. (A discussion of that trade-off will be part of the November 23 article.)
Malin said Davenport has added nine police officers in the past five years, crime has dropped by roughly half, and the city has two new libraries and a rec center. “And we cut the [city’s property] tax rate” by 5 cents per $1,000 of valuation, he added.
Ploehn said Bettendorf issued $63.6 million in bonds for capital projects in fiscal years 2009 through 2011 while lowering its municipal property-tax rate by 25 cents.
Hitchcock said many variables and vendors were involved in the consolidation, from the building to the radio system to the phone system to New World’s software to a recording system to procedures to human resources.
He added that problems with the computer-aided dispatch and records-management systems from New World are functions of both complexity and a natural resistance people have to change. The dispatch/records systems not only involve software but also computer infrastructure – including laptops and their air cards – and human beings. “They’re very intense systems,” he said. “It’s a big program.”
Hitchcock said he understands officer frustration. “This is a new system for everybody out in the field,” he said. And because the software is more robust, it does take longer to enter reports.
“A lot of them were not ready for change,” Fitzpatrick said.
“I feel for the officer,” Bruemmer said.
Bringing all these bodies together, Malin said, has been “both a challenge and an opportunity. All these entities do things a little bit differently, and we need to make sure that each entity is able to do the thing that they specifically need that may be a little bit different from others. That’s the challenge.” The opportunity is entities “adopting best practices from others. Over the long haul, it’s a much better operation.”
Ploehn said that relationships among organizations that respond to emergencies “will get better, stronger.” Furthermore, he said, all agencies will be able to communicate during major events (such as this year’s Bix and RAGBRAI weekend), joint scenes, and joint commands. He gave the example of Davenport and Bettendorf police being on the same “event channel” during a presidential visit.
“Criminals don’t stay in one city,” Bruemmer added.
Ploehn further explained that improved communication will lead to better emergency response. “We used to hand off [from a fire department, for example, to an ambulance service]. ... There’s a transfer now that’s occurring. ... Moving them from ground to ambulance to hospital is becoming seamless.”
And everybody being on same records system will also pay dividends – for instance, Davenport officers being able to see a report on somebody they’ve stopped who might have been arrested a few days earlier in Bettendorf. “The ability for the intelligence to flow in the system, I believe, will be there, and that will be advantageous,” Ploehn said. “We’re not there yet with that piece.”
“You Have to Flip the Switch Sometime”
While the big-picture assessment of the consolidation process varies wildly depending on to whom one talks, there is general agreement from everybody I talked to that training on and testing of the New World Systems software could have been done better.
“Why don’t you test the system before you go online?” Holst asked. “Why put the departments through that?”
(When asked about Holst’s concerns overall, Hitchcock said: “Every time she thinks there’s a problem, she thinks the system’s failing. ... It’s not. ... This is a process we have to go through.”)
Several people noted that no amount of pre-launch testing or training can find all bugs; it can’t anticipate all situations officers will face, and it can’t replicate all agencies using the system simultaneously.
“If we had to do it over again, I wish there would have been more offline training,” Redington said. “More training would have been good, but you still have to go live with it sometime.”
He added that Bettendorf’s police department probably fared better than most when it came to training, because its training team attended all sessions, even those that didn’t directly bear on their jobs: “We set up a pretty good system, probably by accident. ... We thought, ‘Let’s keep everyone together. The more we all know about the whole system, it probably would make more sense to us.’”
Malin said that some problems aren’t going to be apparent with the records-management system until it’s done under a load in the field. “Until you’re doing it at scale, it’s practically impossible to know if it will work perfectly,” he said. “You have to flip the switch sometime.”
Yet there was acknowledgment that increased testing, more or better training, and more forgiving deadlines might have made the transition less frustrating for officers.
When asked what aspects of the transition should have been done differently, Ploehn said: “I would have said we probably would have tested, either more or simultaneously more, so that we wouldn’t have, say, crashes occurring. We could have figured that out. But we didn’t.”
“I would have liked it if we pushed back the opening date” to give officers more familiarity and training, and to catch some bugs earlier, Redington said.
Hitchcock said that in retrospect, it might have been wise to have New World Systems train each department directly instead of only conducting train-the-trainer sessions, in which representatives from each agency are given instruction and then present it to their co-workers. “Maybe we would have spent the extra money to put New World Systems in there to go and train each of the entities, because then the training might have been more consistent,” he said. But “we had some time constraints, too. ...
“When all of this was firing off, we had 25 other projects in play that were coming to make this come together. ... So there were some time crunches ... ,” he explained. “You bet: If we could have pushed it out six months to a year, I think we would have entertained more ... testing.”
Yet this is a contrast to his perspective on integration of dispatchers – the process of cross-training them so they’re no longer serving just one geographic area or municipality. “You can’t put a timeline on that,” he said, noting that SECC had vacancies to fill, and dispatchers require six months of training.
(This shift will allow SECC to optimize its dispatching resources where they’re needed. There are some concerns about that process. “Our concern initially ... is that now we will get employees ... who don’t know the city as well,” Redington said.)
When asked when full integration of dispatching would be complete, Hitchcock said it wouldn’t happen in 2011, but he wouldn’t commit to a date. “I’m not going to pull that pin to make that conversion happen until we are comfortable as an agency that it will happen,” he said. “You’ll ask for failure when you do that [put a deadline on it].”
Hitchcock explained the different approaches to deadlines for live operations on the New World software compared to dispatching by noting that local governments budgeted based on shifting dispatching to SECC this past spring. If that deadline had been pushed later to allow for more testing and training, those governments wouldn’t have had the money budgeted to continue on their old dispatch systems.
Beyond additional training and a more relaxed schedule, there were other ideas on how the transition might have been handled better.
“I think we would have hired Deltawrx to stay with us,” Bruemmer said. The company negotiated the contract with New World and could have gone through the testing and validation of software with SECC and its agencies. “We would have seen some red flags sooner.”
That’s not a uniform position, however. At the October 13 SECC board meeting, Bettendorf Mayor Freemire praised the decision to re-engage Deltawrx at this point rather than retaining the firm throughout implementation. “We had a budget which would have allowed $80,000 for this type of contract, where a third set of eyes ... would ... ensure the implementation, and a lot of these smaller issues are taken care of. My hats off to the staff, and that they were able to forgo a $50,000 expenditure. And unfortunately, what I think we may see are people that say clearly there’s a $30,000 expenditure and forget that there’s a $50,000 savings, from what was originally proposed. ... And I just want to make sure that that isn’t lost.”
Hitchcock implied that it should not have been necessary to retain Deltawrx to assist in the initial implementation. “We have to rely on a certain level [of competence] with the vendor, as well. When we’re being led down the road that this will work, we have to believe in those. They came out on top; they were chosen by all of the representatives to be the outcome. I’m not going to defend the company; I think there’s some improvements that could have been made there as well. But we ... strongly feel that we have a company that’s willing to admit to some of that [problems] and also work hard to come to a resolution. If we didn’t feel as a group at this point that was worth it, we’d be working at other avenues.”
The Case for Increased Transparency
It’s a fair question whether the working-out-the-kinks phase of consolidation should be something done publicly. Law-enforcement agencies have a chain of command, and standard operating procedure is to talk to the media only when directed to by a superior.
“Individual officers should communicate their concerns to their supervisors,” Malin said. “I know that they have.”
When asked whether there had been a directive to keep radio communications to the essential during the weekend of Bix and RAGBRAI, Ploehn responded: “Did you hear something to that effect? ... Was it from an officer?”
It’s a clever parry, as Ploehn knows full well that officers shouldn’t be talking to the media.
(Hitchcock said some agencies did request that their officers minimize radio traffic: “The directive was only to keep it to mission-critical items. ... It wasn’t from us.” He also said he understood a concern about overloading the system, but that was unwarranted. “We could have handled double that traffic that day,” he said. “That was a very good proving ground.” Bruemmer added: “It’s adding confidence to the system.)
Yet there’s a disconnect between the public comments of SECC leaders on the one hand and the Deltawrx memo and the private concerns of street-level officers on the other; they’re not necessarily incongruous, but they’re tonally opposite. Administrators involved in the consolidation take a nothing-to-see-here attitude, while Deltawrx wrote that there are serious problems that affect whether officers will ultimately accept the New World software.
In that context, SECC leaders might be wise to increase transparency – especially considering that its board members aren’t directly elected by voters and that its levy is uncapped. Taxpayers should have even more opportunity to verify that their taxes are being well-spent; that means letting them see the unvarnished truth – the bad with the good. If, as SECC leaders claim, the consolidation has gone relatively well and is a good deal for taxpayers – both in terms of reasonable cost and value (such as personnel and communications efficiencies, and emergency-response performance) – the public will see that.
And while it might be embarrassing, allowing officers to publicly state their problems, frustrations, and concerns would be a good thing – perhaps not in the media, but at a time during SECC board meetings devoted to allowing ground-level stakeholders to air their perspectives. That would show a commitment to make the consolidation work, and a willingness to be held accountable for its shortcomings.
That’s not happening now, and that’s one reason Holst continues to raise issues she hears about. She accepts the one-year timeline for fine-tuning the system, but she said she fears problems might not get solved if there aren’t pointed questions from the public.
“If I can keep the heat on ... then a year won’t slip by,” she said. “This is their key time to keep the pressure on the vendors. ... You don’t get your bugs out then, you start to make work-arounds and people compensate, and you’re not getting the full value of the system. ... Let’s be more open about this, acknowledge that there’s something [wrong], and let those departments use their old systems temporarily. Don’t hide that there’s an issue right now. Be up-front.”
The first of seven recommendations from the Deltawrx report gently pushes SECC leaders in that direction: “Accept responsibility for project outcome.” It starts: “The first step in reaching a successful outcome for SECC and SECC agency leaders is to agree that they are responsible and accountable for a successful product outcome. Implementation of the following recommendations requires commitment to success from the leadership in participating agencies. Commitment to success means devoting resources and energy, which we understand is difficult to request when so much time and energy have already been devoted.”
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