Why Is the City of Philadelphia Still Using Paper Time Sheets?

City government's tech infrastructure is — shocker! — a costly, unmitigated mess. Can $120 million — and a passionate leader — clean things up?

Last Tuesday, city chief technology officer Allan Frank laid out the Division of Technology’s unprecedented six-year, $120 million budget in a hearing before City Council.

The sizable investment is a commitment to an executive order announced last July when Frank’s staff was more than tripled to 520 employees and plans were put in place to consolidate resources, improve technology infrastructure and streamline city services.

It is, in our opinion, absolutely necessary. As Frank told Council, according to the Daily News: “The world changed, but the city never changed.” [SIGNUP]

The City of Philadelphia’s information technology infrastructure is a mess of outdated servers located throughout its 33 departments. Networked by about 1,000 servers — no one has an exact count — redundancy is baffling.

“Over the last couple months we brought 157 servers into our [central] data center,” he says. “You know how many we turned off? One-hundred and eleven,” a 70 percent reduction. And before the executive order, each department had its own IT staff that was loosely connected to DOT. Now, those employees answer directly to Frank.

That puts Philadelphia on track to to start catching up with business and other government IT departments that are now a decade ahead.

Over the next six years, $26 million will be invested to stabilize network infrastructure and $93 million invested to implement new city-wide and departmental application systems. It’s a complete reset for city processes that will touch every department and that chases two objectives: increasing proficiency and reducing paper consumption.

That the city still manually records employee time sheets — there are city employees whose job it is to type those hundreds of thousands of records — is the most tangible change. Electronic records will begin to record that information automatically. Other systems, like Web-based contract procurement and budget and finance reporting systems, will also streamline antiquated practices.

Frank says the improvements will save money. And he hopes the city will allow him to reinvest those funds back into city tech. As city processes are automated, he sees more opportunity for savings as elder DOT employees — about 40 percent of the department — begin to retire over the next five years.

“The budget crisis made it clear that if we’re going to drive costs down in the city, an investment has to be made into technology in order to make it more effective, efficient and flexible,” Frank says.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the multi-year investment is a revitalization of the citizen-facing Phila.gov Web site — a “hodgepodge of over 300 sites” — which will be implemented with more and better Web-based services. Processing forms with agencies like L&I will streamlined. Citizens may have spotted improvements like these at the city’s business services portal, revamped last year, yet still hindered by legacy components.

“What we’re doing is blowing up Phila.gov to create something that doesn’t exist. You’re going to see that evolve through the summer,” Frank says.

Let’s hope. — Brian James Kirk

TECHNICALLY PHILLY is a news site that covers technology in the region. The site covers startups, investment, government policy, Comcast, social media and all that is Philadelphia tech. Read more at technicallyphilly.com.