On Tuesday afternoon, at the Office of Innovation and Technology’s annual budget hearing, new Councilmembers Allan Domb and Helen Gym wanted to know about online bill pay. Are people paying their bills online? What is OIT doing to make the process easier?
CIO Charles Brennan had a good answer. We’re redesigning Phila.gov to make it easier for citizens to do business with the city.
“If you see some of these websites, you wouldn’t even know how to pay a bill,” he said.
That’s why his office is putting “an awful, awful lot of time and expense” into making the site user-friendly. Brennan was referencing the alpha.phila.gov project, which has staffed up with a UX strategist, a content designer and a front-end developer in the last year.
Brennan also talked about how he sent staffers to the Municipal Services Building, where Philadelphians can go to pay bills, to find out why people didn’t pay online. The issue, he said, was trust. These people felt more comfortable giving their money to a human.
It was a nice nod for the alpha.phila.gov team, which has felt the pinch during the mayoral transition. They lost their team lead, Aaron Ogle, last month. Brennan said he wasn’t sure if he’d replace Ogle’s role but that web and creative services manager Kyle Odum would take over Ogle’s responsibilities. Two technologists who worked on the project, including former city engineer Gabriel Farrell, also said they felt torn between working on their product (alpha.phila.gov) and doing one-off work for agencies and city offices.
Here’s what else came up at the budget hearing, which was Brennan’s first as city CIO. OIT’s proposed 2017 budget is $83.6 million, just shy of 2016’s $82.8 million budget. See the budget testimony here.
(We also wrote about Brennan’s comment about the hardships of hiring tech talent and why it upset a handful of civic technologists.)
Comcast’s Digital Inclusion Alliance Fund
Gym pursued an aggressive line of questioning about the city’s new $500,000 Digital Inclusion Alliance Fund, created as part of the Comcast franchise agreement. She wanted to know who was on the board that would decide how the money would be spent (answer: no one yet) and wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just donors and entrepreneurs, but also the people who the fund is supposed to help.
“One of the problems we often have is that when we create these new funds … we only seat people who actually don’t have a problem with inequity,” Gym said.
Brennan said he’d welcome City Council’s help in finding board members.
OIT had no details to report on the fund yet, as it’s still in its infancy, thought Brennan and Councilman Bobby Henon said the plan was to find other local donors to the fund.
Henon asked twice about if and how OIT would continue engaging the local tech community, noting that Philadelphia has been recognized nationally and locally for its civic innovation work and that’s due in part to recruiting from the local tech scene.
“Are we going to continue moving that forward?” Henon asked.
Brennan had Andrew Buss, director of innovation management, speak about the city’s innovation portfolio — the Innovation Lab coworking space, the Innovation Fund and the Innovation Academy at Philadelphia University, which Brennan said the city is considering bringing in-house. Buss also mentioned the city’s KEYSPOT computer labs.
We’ll note two things: We don’t think OIT really answered Henon’s specific question about engaging the local tech community (except, perhaps with respect to KEYSPOT), but that Henon’s question might have been directed to the wrong department — and maybe that was point. Buss and his team are now part of the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer Rebecca Rhynhart, so maybe that’s where this kind of work will live now. (The Commerce Department, too, has done a lot of work in engaging the tech community and continues to do so, with staffers like Archna Sahay.)