City's IT has come a long way, D.C. mayor says

"Four years ago, you would have laughed me off the stage if I had come out talking about technology," Mayor Anthony Williams said in a keynote speech at FOSE today.

But today no one laughed at the mayor of Washington, D.C. Or if they did, it was with him and not at him.

Williams described the IT situation in the city when he took office. 'In 1999, the District had 270 unlinked systems and no digital phone system. We had a dreadful e-mail system. It would max out at 200 e-mail messages a day,' he said. 'We had nine separate mainframe centers. At best, our systems dated back to disco. Some went all the way back to the Beatles.'

On top of all that, the dot-com boom drove away the city's best technology talent. 'We were without a doubt one of the worst technology jurisdictions in the nation,' he said.

The first thing Williams did to turn the city's dismal technology situation around was to get new leadership. 'We went for the gold standard,' he said, 'hiring leaders from Fortune 500 companies. We couldn't offer money, so we offered challenges.' Within three years, the District's IT teams grew from one person to 100.

The city also received political support from Congress, which approved funding for the first citywide IT agency, he said.

But the city still had hurdles ahead. The first one to tackle was Y2K, which the District got a late start on, he said. 'On New Year's Eve, we heard the most beautiful sound: the sound of silence.'

Williams and his team modernized hardware, software and communications equipment. They broke down technology fiefdoms, he said. And they appointed John Koskinen, former Y2K czar, as the new city administrator.

The city consolidated its nine data centers and soon will be consolidating LAN servers, he said. The new e-mail system carries over one million e-mail messages a day. 'When I came into office, the ratio of hard copy letters to e-mail messages was 90 to 10. Now it's the reverse.'

Williams described the evolution of the city's Web portal, In 2001, the site, received 1.5 million hits. Last year it was 100 million.

Williams also boasted of a geographic information system, called GIS Atlas, which will be distributed to citizens for free in September.

The Department of Motor Vehicles 'used to be our very own torture chamber. Now, there's rarely a need for a citizen to visit the DMV.'

People still sometimes complain to Williams. 'They say, 'The Web site said one thing, the person on the phone said another thing, and the person at the counter said another thing.' Then I say, 'Well, that's progress. Four years ago, there was no Web site, nobody answered the phone and there was nobody at the counter.'

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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