Philadelphia’s Tech Fail

There are city workers who don't even have email on the job

When people think about dysfunction in Philadelphia’s city government, they think about the big things: pay to play, recalcitrant unions, the madness that is City Council.

Some of city government’s biggest shortcomings, though, have managed to stay below the radar. Exhibit A is the dismal state of the city’s information systems. And by that I mean the computers, internal networks and software that are obviously critical for any large enterprise. For the City of Philadelphia, those systems, collectively, are an archaic wreck.

Thousands of city workers lack basics like an email address. Internet speeds at some city facilities resemble the dial-up days of the early 1990s. Outmoded systems at some city agencies, like the Sheriff’s Office, have rendered official city records suspect and unreliable.

All of this has real-life consequences. The city installed hundreds of surveillance cameras, only to find that technical problems made many of them useless. Astronomically expensive software systems were purchased at the Water Department and the Board of Revision of Taxes only to later prove unfit for the job.

To its credit, the Nutter administration has made getting a handle on these systems a top priority, allocating $120 million in capital funds for the job. And yet despite the money (much of which has not been spent) and the high-level attention, the city’s systems are still a mess.

Last month, the city hired a new tech guru, Adel Ebeid, to clean up the mess. Ebeid, who ran the state of New Jersey’s IT systems, is the permanent replacement for Allan Frank, a kind of mad-genius, private-sector type who upended the technology bureaucracy but proved unable to rebuild it.

Ebeid was so horrified by what he found that he put a temporary lockdown on any new technology, fearful that the basic infrastructure was too unstable. Technically Philly, which is all over this story, reported that news last week, posting an internal memo from Ebeid that warned “continuing to build on top of a fragile infrastructure that is growing in an unstructured fashion would put us one step closer to a perfect storm.”

It’s not entirely clear to me what a perfect storm in the city’s IT systems would look like, but I’m supposing it’d be a very bad thing.

Ebeid seems like a solid choice to clean the mess up. Unlike Frank, he’s worked extensively in the public sector, and he knows the levers to pull to get a lumbering bureaucracy moving. But it is hard to be all that optimistic. Ebeid’s title is Chief Innovation Officer, and his department is called the Office of Information Technology. Frank’s title was Chief Technology Officer, and he ran something called the Division of Technology. When Nutter became mayor, the office was called MOIS, for Mayor’s Office of Information Services.

In other words, the city has reorganized its IT office three times in less than four years. Not an inspiring record. And there’s some evidence that all the shuffling and confusion has led departments to shun IT as much as possible. Like a lot of the city’s woes, this one predates the Nutter administration by many years. But that doesn’t relieve this administration of its duty to get a handle on this problem. You can’t run a modern city on a Commodore Amiga.