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    A Times Editorial

    Technology trouble

    The recent glitch regarding Pinellas County's traffic records highlights an incompetent Department of Information Technology whose shortcomings are in need of repair.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 1, 2002

    For the past several years, the keepers of Pinellas County traffic records have been a scofflaw's dream. Since 1996, the county clerk of courts failed to forward the outcome of more than 76,000 traffic cases to state officials. An analysis of those cases by the St. Petersburg Times showed that two-thirds of them -- 51,150 cases -- involved convictions for violations such as speeding, running red lights and even DUI. Many of those drivers may have delayed license suspensions and avoided higher auto insurance rates because of the error.

    Officials in court Clerk Karleen DeBlaker's office have accepted the blame for the mistake, and certainly they have been negligent. But the other culprit is Pinellas County's incompetent Department of Information Technology (IT), an insulated bureaucracy that wastes money and too easily avoids accountability.

    IT runs the computer system that transfers traffic court records to the state driver's license office. In 1999, IT discovered that because of a computer glitch, some of the records had not been received by the state, going back to 1996. IT says the state told the department to stop sending data until the computer conflict was resolved. The state denies it.

    Either way, Times staff writers William R. Levesque and Constance Humburg found 51,150 cases over six years in which traffic violations went unreported to the state. Insurance companies are particularly upset because they would have raised the rates for some of those drivers. "The companies can't go back and collect what they've already lost," said Bill Cannon with the Florida Department of Insurance.

    It is not clear when IT notified the clerk's office of the problem. What is clear is that DeBlaker failed to make sure the problem had been resolved. After all, she is legally responsible for those records. Unfortunately, Pinellas County residents can have no confidence that incompetence within the IT department will be resolved any time soon.

    Stories of wasted money and useless technology are legion within county government. It's structure is clunky and unresponsive to the public. Al Leiser runs the department and answers only to a board whose seven members come from the various constitutional offices, County Commission and courts that are supposedly served by IT. In other words, it is a bureaucracy run by sometimes competing bureaucrats.

    First-year county Administrator Steve Spratt, who is technologically savvy, quickly recognized the problem. He outlined IT's shortcomings in a memo earlier this year, noting that a task force concluded in 1997 that there was "significant redundancy, operating inefficiencies, technological obsolescence and an obvious lack of a coordinated/visionary plan to address the same" in the department. Worse, after 5 years nothing had been done about it. IT spent $12-million on database software and another $3.5-million maintaining it, yet only a fraction of that system is being used. For example, computer files that should be able to be transferred from one department to another with a few key strokes must be typed out and re-entered into the computer by hand. When IT cannot meet the technology needs of county government, each individual office finds it must create a costly and redundant system of its own.

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