by Steve Ulfelder

The Boston IT Party

Apr 15, 200113 mins
Business IT Alignment


* Compare your challenges with those facing public sector CIOs

* Discover how Boston’s CIO is using IT to weld warring factions together

* Learn how Boston’s CIO plans to bring his city into the 21st century

Boston is known not only for the tribalism of its distinctly bounded neighborhoods but for the competing rivalries of its city departments, each intent on carving out as much financial and political clout as possible. Consider, for example, what happened on March 5, 1999: A Melrose, Mass., bread delivery man was badly injured when his truck rolled over him at a South Boston warehouse. The victim, a man by the name of Carlos Calderon, waited nine minutes for an ambulance dispatched by the city’s EMS department, even though a fire department ambulance was sitting only a mile away. The fire department was not notified of the emergency because it was feuding with the EMS over who got to answer which emergency calls. Carlos Calderon died of his injuries.

Calderon’s death may, of course, be an extreme by-product of the city’s historic turf battles. But there’s no question that Craig Burlingame, the city’s first-ever CIO, has a tall order: unite the tribes through information technology in order to deliver more services more efficiently to taxpayers.

In mending ancient rivalries, Burlingame, who came on board in November 2000, enjoys some very modern assets: a top-notch Internet link and an existing IT program already rated in the top third of its class. Governing magazine, which grades municipal governments on a variety of competencies, recently gave the city of Boston’s IT a B, placing it solidly in the top third of the 35 cities ranked by the magazine’s Government Performance Project. Governing’s criteria included effective IT planning, timeliness of procurement, quality of training and ROI measurements, among others. (Altogether, the cities included in the ranking averaged a miserly C+.)

Burlingame also has the support of an assertive mayor in his corner as well as a strong track record in government IT. But these two assets may prove a double-edged sword. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, an aggressive politician who seldom shows up late for a photo-op, wants IT he can brag about. Soon. And then there are those who suggest that importing a leader from the private sector could provide a good swift kick in the city’s posterior. Plus there is the city’s storied aversion to changing the way it does business. Alan Altshuler, a professor of urban policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, once told The Boston Phoenix, “Boston is probably as resistant a culture as you would find anywhere in the country,” owing largely to patronage and powerful municipal unions.

So while Burlingame has established a reputation as a strong government IT manager able to persuade disparate factions to cooperate, it’s fair to wonder how well a man who is known for his easygoing style will do in the cut-and-thrust of Boston politics, where previous reform efforts have done about as well as the luckless Red Sox.

A Self-Taught Expert

Boston City Hall looks like a parking garage, only less homey. Poured concrete, inside and out. Nevertheless, Burlingame’s sev-enth-floor office is impressive; large enough to hold a regulation-size conference table, it also features a knockout view of Boston Harbor. Not bad for a 39-year-old who lacks a college degree and has spent most of his career in the public sector.

Originally from Cape Cod, Burlingame–a burly, bearded man–is a self-taught computer hobbyist who got his start at age 18, working part-time for the town of Barnstable, whose first mainframe he programmed on a wing and a prayer. “We were trying to computerize and having a tough time,” says Barnstable Town Manager John Klimm, who was a selectman in 1981, when Burlingame began coming around. He says the quiet high-school volunteer worked wonders with the system, a feat that most of the older town employees resented. Even so, “they recognized his talent,” Klimm says. “He took us from major problems to being a model [computerized] community for that time,” while property-assessment and tax-billing functions were run by the mainframe.

After high school, Burlingame stuck around, eventually becoming Barnstable’s first IS director. In this position, he established a reputation–very rare at the time and still far too rare today–as a technologist who could discuss IT in layman’s terms. Klimm laughs when recalling some of Burlingame’s “interesting experiences,” trying to persuade Barnstable government’s elders to make use of the fancy new computer. But the town manager hastens to add that Burlingame nearly always succeeded. “He brought a ton of patience,” Klimm says. “He’s a master at speaking plain English.”

In 1993, Burlingame took a job with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Criminal History Systems Board, which tracks offenders in the criminal justice system. And in 1997, after more than a decade of work in the public sector, Burlingame took a CIO position at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety, which oversees a broad range of people, programs and agencies–from maximum-security prisons to bulletproof vest reimbursement for police, to school violence prevention.

At Public Safety, Burlingame honed his skills at eliminating stovepipes and convincing grudge-bearing groups to meet at the conference table. Early in his tenure in 1994, his IT group created a centralized database for police departments that included data on known criminal offenders: convictions, parole and probation status, and so on. According to Burlingame and Michael Ross, who previously worked in the city’s MIS department and is now a Boston city councilor, the major difficulty in implementing the warrant management system was political: “The data came from sources under control of different agencies,” Burlingame says. “And some agencies didn’t want to give up that data.”

Burlingame had a sell job on his hands. His approach, which he hopes to continue in Boston, was to show hostile agencies that if they set aside rivalries and shared their information, there would be something in it for them. He started with the Massachusetts Parole Board, whose officers had “gone berserk” over the plan, according to Ross.

After assuring Parole that the police database was sound–with adequate security and guarantees that data would be used appropriately–Burlingame offered a carrot, redesigning the database to give feedback. Thus, any time a police department made an inquiry, Parole learned of it. This alerted the department to many parole violations they wouldn’t have known of otherwise. Parole revocations increased significantly, and word got around the extensive Public Safety community. “Soon, other departments started to call,” Burlingame says. “They wanted in too.” Ross remembers the episode as an impressive display of diplomacy by Burlingame.

If he doubted it beforehand, his stint at Public Safety taught him that “governments do tend to grow into stovepipes,” Burlingame says. “That was the challenge: getting people to work on IT in a collaborative way.”

In 1998, Burlingame left Public Safety for another state post, this time as assistant commissioner of IT at the Massachusetts Department of Social Services. In November 2000, Menino lured him back to local government (albeit large-scale local government) as Boston’s first-ever CIO. Once again, Burlingame’s abilities as a plain speaker stood him in good stead. “He’s not overbearing,” Menino says. “A lot of these technology guys come in with the razzle-dazzle; they want to blind you with it. Craig is very down-to-earth.”

Ross echoes both the sentiment and the locale. “Craig comes from the ground up,” he says. “I like that.”

One casualty of Burlingame’s rapid career climb has been a formal education. While he’s taken courses that interested him, both in computer science and other fields, his credits fall far short of a degree. During the interviewing process, some city councilors (the board reviews all major hires) were concerned about his lack of formal education.

Ross was one. Before joining the city council, he helped launch the city’s website, which he ran for two years. “I brought up the college issue,” he says of Burlingame. “When at the chief level, you need sound management practices under your belt.”

After talking with the candidate, though, Ross says he and other city councilors were persuaded Burlingame’s real-world experience has taught him those practices–probably better than any college could. “Do you want an academic type, or someone who’s pulled [himself] up by the bootstraps?” Ross says.

Burlingame concedes that his lack of a formal education is a hole in his rŽsumŽ and plans to work toward a degree. It’s easy to see why his new boss would be sympathetic; Menino earned his own college degree, from the University of


Though he is Boston’s first CIO, Burlingame inherits an IT program that many cities would envy. After all, in Governing’s national survey, Boston ranked higher in IT than 31 of the 35 other cities, including Baltimore; Columbus, Ohio (about the same size as Beantown); Los Angeles; San Jose, Calif.; and Houston. Dallas was at the bottom of the heap with a D+. (See “Big D, Little IT,” Page 76.) The only cities ranked higher than Boston were Minneapolis, Phoenix, Honolulu and Philadelphia.

Burlingame’s IT operating budget is $11 million, which compares favorably to other cities its size. Columbus’s Information Services budget in 2000 was $9.7 million; Minneapolis’s was $15 million. Boston’s department has about 82 employees, compared with Columbus’s 107 IT workers.

Burlingame also inherits a respectable website as well as something more valuable tucked away in the basement of city hall: a one-hop link to a major regional Internet backbone. Before Burlingame was hired, “The city worked with local [ISPs] to put in a metropolitan exchange that we host,” he says. “So we get a 100MB pipe of our own, piped straight into our infrastructure.” Hosting a metropolitan exchange (MXP) is quite a prize; Burlingame thinks the next-closest MXP is in New York City. provides the usual informational services–an event calendar, contact information for Boston officials, permit application forms and so on. It also lets residents pay parking tickets, and excise and real estate taxes online–a clear if small step toward interactivity that Menino and Burlingame hope to build on. Moreover, Boston recently retooled its human resources and financial services system with a major PeopleSoft implementation. The new tools won special praise from Governing magazine because before the implementation, these departments were a decades-old mess. Payroll alone was handled by three different systems.

The upgrade is not an unqualified success, however. There is rumbling in some quarters that the Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting) consultants helping to implement the project have overstayed their welcome and ought to be ushered out of town. Ross calls the PeopleSoft implementation “a huge HR project laden with consultants.” Indeed, Boston’s IT budget shows a steadily escalating expenditure for contract analysts; the department spent about $538,000 on IT analysts in 1999 and has budgeted more than twice that–$1.1 million–for 2001.

Burlingame concedes that weaning off Accenture will be a challenge, but he commits to no time line. And Ross agrees that the new CIO “may need to get some small victories before tackling that one.” An Accenture spokesman says the company has contracted with the city “into the summer of 2002” and declines further comment on how long the engagement will last. In the background (but never for long) hovers a mayor who wants not just results, but sexy results. From efforts to reduce the number of students per classroom computer to teacher technology training, to community tech centers, to computer kiosks, Menino has publicly declared an ambitious suite of programs. Publicly, Burlingame, who calls the mayor his top asset, says that’s fine by him. “This guy knows the technology is important. He doesn’t think of it just as making the city run more efficiently.”

Boston’s solid IT foundation may be a bit like a good-news-bad-news joke for Burlingame. On the one hand, he doesn’t have to clean up the technology wasteland faced by CIOs in many other states and municipalities. On the other, the relatively easy work is done, and what remains– creating a truly unified structure–will mean eliminating decentralized fiefdoms. The department’s major initiatives for 2001 include completing a wide area network to link various agencies. According to the city budget, 87 percent of city buildings were on this WAN in 2000; the goal for 2001 is 100 percent.

The city has budgeted almost $5.5 million to complete a new system that will unite dispatch services for the police, fire and EMS departments. Once that is finished, city officials hope, there will be no more senseless deaths due to departmental squabbling.

Sharing Is Power

Persuading feudal government agencies to share information may be Burlingame’s stiffest challenge. Boston has a long history of “a culture of knowledge-is-power,” says Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a financial watchdog group funded by businesses. “Sharing has not happened on a widespread basis.” According to Tyler, this is where Burlingame needs Menino most. “The mayor must make it clear that this is the direction he wants his administration to go,” Tyler says. “Craig’s going to need the mayor’s support on an ongoing basis.”

As an early victory in this unification effort, Burlingame points to The Virtual Boston project. Last year, the city’s Transportation Department hired GeoSpan Technologies to drive 800 miles of Boston roads with specially equipped vans that created a very detailed visual map of the roads and surrounding environs.

Once they saw Virtual Boston, other agencies–including the police and fire departments–thought of ways they could use the digital map too. As a result, Transportation has shared the resource with several other agencies.

The new CIO faces another type of cultural challenge: simply persuading agencies to alter the way they do business. Tyler points to Boston’s Purchasing Department as an example in desperate need of modernization. Presently, the city posts its requests for proposals online but otherwise makes no use of the Internet for procurement. “That’s a great example of an opportunity that’s not been fully utilized,” Tyler says. “They’re still using mostly paper. [Purchasing] could use an overhaul. It should embrace technology much more than it does now.”

In their recent book, Powering Up: How Public Managers Can Take Control of Information Technology, authors Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene list bullet items for CIOs in states and cities to focus on. The list boils down to coordination, communication and standardization. The authors add, “Even more important [than technology skills] are the managerial-political skills required to manage a large cadre of workers and to relate effectively with governors, mayors, legislators, citizens and all the other stakeholders who play a role in this field.”

Those who know him say that Burlingame brings to the table political astuteness, universally praised technical knowledge and a reputation as a strong communicator. “He’s a people person,” Barnstable Town Manager Klimm says. “People don’t feel threatened by him.”

Boston will soon find out if that’s the right recipe for its first CIO.