City Hall’s reboot

by pkerkstra on July 17, 2012

This column originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on July 14, 2012.

Dysfunction in Philadelphia’s City Hall comes in many flavors.

There are the outdated union contracts and their burdensome work rules, the still-strong influence of the Democratic machine, and the pay-to-play culture, which is diminished but not dead.

But arguably more debilitating than any of the above is the pathetic state of the information systems. Technologically, Philadelphia’s government is a decade or more behind the rest of the world, and it shows.

Spend enough time in City Hall and you’ll hear countless stories of mind-blowing inefficiency. Documents are typed up in one system only to be printed out, walked across the office, and reentered (by hand) into a different system on another machine.

Obviously this wastes time and money, and it leads to innumerable errors and omissions in the records.

Over the years, the city has taken occasional stabs at solving one glaring tech problem or the other with spot upgrades. But its record even on these relatively modest improvements is terrible.

After spending $17 million on police surveillance cameras, we learned last month that only about 70 percent are operational. In May, the city scrapped a $227,000 project to create a digitized, searchable database of lobbyist disclosure statements when it became clear the firm that had been hired for the job wasn’t up to the task.

Before that it was a debacle of a water billing system, an expensive and ultimately abandoned property appraisal system, and, of course, the high-profile failure of Wireless Philadelphia.

Now the Nutter administration is taking another crack at this long-running problem, with what looks to be an altogether different approach.

It wants to reexamine pretty much everything, with the aim of upgrading not just the hardware and software, but also the work flow of city departments. Instead of spot improvements made on the fly, this time the city means to coordinate the projects across departments, with what could be far-reaching effects.

Officials have the money to do it, too: $120 million, already allocated by City Council, including up to $16 million for the planning alone, which will be spent hiring big-time professional consultants like Accenture or IBM.

No doubt skeptics will think this sounds like another tech boondoggle in the making. But the city really does not have much of a choice. Sooner or later, it needs to modernize or it will grow still more inefficient.

“We can wallow in the valley of despair the rest of our lives thinking about past failures, or we can stand up and say we’re going to figure out a better way to build a different mousetrap,” said Adel Ebeid, the city’s chief innovation officer and the lead architect of this looming tech overhaul.

Ebeid, who was New Jersey’s IT chief until Philadelphia hired him away 11 months ago, was alarmed by what he found when he arrived.

“The infrastructure here is so old and so fragile that you’re not able to modify it to make changes to accommodate additional demands,” Ebeid said. “That means that when agencies want to improve how they deliver services, they’re finding that the tech won’t enable that to happen.”

Consider the case of Licenses and Inspections. The department wants to give its customers the ability to apply for and purchase permits online instead of whiling the hours away waiting for a clerk.

L&I’s leaders want a system that makes it simple to comprehensively measure the performance of their inspectors. And they want their inspectors to carry tablets or smartphones so they can create detailed inspection reports on site, including photos, all of it syncing in real time with the server back at headquarters. And everything would be paperless – a positively stunning notion in the all-forms-in-triplicate universe that still reigns in City Hall.

That word paperless positively delights Councilman Bill Green, who has been passing around his position paper calling for a paperless city government for five years now. Green is so happy the administration seems to be embracing the concept that he didn’t even gloat. Much.

“We can leapfrog every other city in the country and become best in class if we handle this right, and it has the potential to create tremendous savings and transform the way we operate our city government,” Green said.

Indeed, Green sees a more efficient, technologically advanced government as the linchpin to solving a lot of the city’s problems. In Green’s view, better tech means fewer workers, which would create the financial wherewithal to deal with issues like the pension crisis and the need for new union contracts.

And it’s true that one former city tech chief – Terry Phyllis – did estimate in 2008 that a modernized tech infrastructure could save up to $200 million a year, which is serious money.

Ebeid, though, said the principal goal was better service, not cost savings. “If we can improve the quality, and it comes at a lower cost, all the better.”

When asked if the administration was following Green’s lead on this one, Ebeid chuckled.

“I’d say that perhaps Councilman Green and I just both have a keen eye for the obvious.”

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