The director of the D.C. government's computer center, a 30-year data-processing veteran, has been removed from his job in a shakeup aimed at halting the breakdowns, errors and overloads that have hindered and sometimes crippled vital operations in the city's bookkeeping and management systems.
Francis R. (Bob) Yates was transferred from the SHARE computer center to the Department of Licenses, Investigations and Inspections, as a "special assistant" to the director.
Yates, 49, a constant target of criticism from private systems analysts working for the city, is a career civil servant with a GS 15 rating, so he could not be dismissed. But he lost a power struggle with Edward G. Winner, the assistant city administator for financial management, and was shunted aside -- even though operations are said by city officials to have improved over the past six months.
More is at stake in the management of the computer center than the outcome of a bureaucratic contest. The computer center is the mechanical heart of the city government, and computer problems have been among the biggest obstacles to the successful implementation of the District's new $38 million Financial Management System, the automated accounting system that was ordered by Congress to end the chaos in the city's financial records. SHARE's computers process millions of salary and pension checks each year, record tax assessments and collections, and store all the purchase order and voucher data for the complex bookkeeping system.
Winner has taken over as acting director of the computer center, which is housed in a concrete bunker built into an abutment of the Inner Loop Freeway where it hits Massachusetts avenue NW. "Life in the bunker is not a good time," he said, "but I'm just down there temporarily." He said he is looking for a permanent new director of the center.
But the city government lacks qualified data-processing personnel, according to Winner and other officials, and is having trouble recruiting them because the competition is intense and the city's limited salaries and residence requirements reduce the attractiveness of the job offers, according to some officials.
It is a shortage of data processing personnel that has forced the District to look for an outside contractor to help city workers operate the new computer-base Financial Management System -- a search that began badly when the company that designed the system, American Management Systems of Arlington, declined to bid on the contract to help run it, saying that it could never operate properly in the "environment" of the city government.
Sources familiar with the negotiations say that Winner and his staff recommended the contract be given to Computer Sciences Corp., a a California-based industry giant, only to have it held up when that company was indicted by a Federal grand jury on charges of conspiring to bribe government officials.
Those charges involve events that took place years ago and have nothing to do with the District government, but the District's Contracts Review Board has still withheld approval of the contract. Ironically, Computer Sciences reportedly was favored for the contract to work on the management system because it already has technicians working on the actual computers at SHARE under another agreement. The delay in awarding the management-assistance contract has left the city short of staff to operate FMS, on which its financial stability now depends.
Yates attributed his transfer to "differences of policy between Ed Winner and myself." He said the decision was made by Mayor Marion Barry and city administrator Elijah Rogers, who "determined that it was in the best interests of the city that I be reassigned." His problems were not with the programs that were run on the computers but with the actual machines -- the "hardware," was opposed to the "software."
Yates said the current computers are "bad hardware that need to be replaced," -- an assessment disputed by computer experts not involved in the situation -- and that the air conditioning system in the bunker does not provide adequate cooling for the sensitive machines.
There is no question," Winner said, "that the computer is two generations behind." The main IBM computers are 12 years old, he said, but the more serious problem is that their "core memories" were not supplied by IBM. They were supplied by other manufacturers, whose equipment permitted the machines to store more data. That overtaxed the system and created what is known as a "multi-vendor environment," in which it is not clear which company's technicians should be called in the event of breakdowns. "Things are constantly falling through the cracks," Winner said.
He did not quarrel with Yates' complaint about the air conditioning system.
Not only is the system inadequate, he said, but the computer center was poorly designed. The machines are clustered too close together, and worse, the staff is housed on a level below the machines. Since hot air rises and it is necessary to provide heat for the staff, the heating and air conditioning systems work against each other. "They forgot their high school physics," Winner said of the planners who laid out the center in 1979.
Another city official familiar with the computer operations said that last spring the computers were actually out of service as much as 50 per cent of the time. The Financial Management System was crippled, and backlogs developed in other functions that rely on computer processing. He said that with the assistance of the consultants from Computer Sciences and as a result of long hours of hard work by the center's technicians, the computers were "up" almost 99 per cent of the time by the beginning of November. "Yates was the director during that period of improvement," he said, "but he was also the director during the years before when it was a mess. Draw your own conclusions.
SHARE -- which is not an acronym but a coined name for the center where all city agencies that use computers share the time available on the central bank of machines -- costs nearly $6 million a year to operate.