When just about everyone is walking around with a smartphone in their pocket that’s more powerful than most desktops from ten years ago, it’s easy to think that the parts of society reliant on computers are all using relatively modern tech. In reality that’s far from the truth for a large number of municipal governments across the US, including the tech hub of San Francisco.
It turns out that many major cities continue to rely things like software dating back to the 1980’s for systems that control traffic lights, vehicle registration, court records, and property tax databases. “Modernizing technology is not a top issue that typically comes to mind when you talk to taxpayers and constituents on the street,” explains San Francisco real estate assessor Carmen Chu in a new Bloomberg report.
Of course, the biggest hurdle is funding. The article explains that while it’s easy to use public money to upgrade infrastructure like roads and bridges, it’s not so simple to convince taxpayers why hardware and software needs to be kept up to date. Hardware upgrades aren’t as difficult, as they can be billed as capital expenses, but in this age of cloud computing, software as a service has to be paid for with the same operating funds that go to public needs like parks and police forces.
As the biggest example, the article highlights how the San Francisco assessor’s office relies on Cobol-based software from the 1980’s by IBM for its real estate and property tax systems. Employees aren’t even able to display all the necessary information on-screen at once, and must navigate multiple menus for tasks like entering addresses. Things get even more complicated when it comes to issuing tax exemptions, as addresses must be entered in specific formats, and any data entry errors can result in overcharged homeowners, rather than prompting a warning flag.
Other examples include the ten years and $100 million cost for Minnesota to replace its vehicle-licensing and registration software, only for it to debut in 2017 with so many bugs that the Governor asked for another $16 million to pay for fixes. The Baltimore police department needs $4 million to upgrade its 20-year old crime reports system, which currently isn’t compatible with the national standard; Broome County, NY’s emergency services office still relies on radio systems from the 1970’s that don’t allow units to communicate with one another, and replacements are priced at $23 million; The Dallas County court system need over $30 million to replace its aging programs after a software upgrade that was supposed to begin in 2012 has been indefinitely delayed.
“We’re dealing with an irrational public who wants greater and greater service delivery at the same time they want their taxes to be lower,” notes Alan Shark of the Public Technology Institute. But the US’s biggest tech and software companies aren’t exactly eager to help either; they’re really not really interested in “focusing on solving the mundane problems of basic core government functions,” adds Chu, instead preferring to create flashy, consumer-facing products and services.