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Interim CIO Mark Wheeler named permanent head of Philly OIT spoke to Wheeler about his vision for the tech department and how he plans to bring top talent into city government. “Think of it like the Peace Corps,” he said.

In April, Wheeler testified before City Council as interim CIO. (Photo by Roberto Torres)
After eight months as interim Chief Information Officer for the City of Philadelphia, technologist and city planner Mark Wheeler has been chosen to head the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology permanently.

Wheeler’s appointment comes after what Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said was an extensive, nationwide search for a new leader at the city’s tech office.

“Mark brings tremendous leadership skills, a remarkable array of accomplishments that have brought innovation to our government, and a strong understanding of the solutions needed to fix and upgrade the back-office IT systems that drive our government,” Kenney said in a statement that will be published later today.

Wheeler, 50, became interim CIO in January in the aftermath of Charlie Brennan’s ouster, the former beat cop turned tech manager. This spring, Brennan sued the city for wrongful termination amid reports that he had uttered sexist comments at meetings.

Chief Administrative Officer Christine Derenick-Lopez, who Wheeler reports to, said the former Chief Geographic Information Officer checks the boxes needed to fill the role permanently.

“I’m confident that he is the perfect choice to lead OIT’s two-fold mandate,” Derenick-Lopez said in a statement. “Upgrading and improving the IT systems that empower City departments, while at the same time ensuring that Philadelphia remains a leader in municipal innovation to improve services to residents.”

For Wheeler, who first joined the city in 2010 as a planner with the City Planning Commission, the moment that crystallized his role at CIO came last April, when he testified at City Council’s budget hearings with backing from the office’s senior staff.

“IT is infrastructure, like water and streets,” Wheeler then told Council member Curtis Jones. “These are business operations that we’re replacing and they are costly to do,” in reference to the $101 million budget proposal and projects like the relocation of the city’s 911 call center at 400 N. Broad.

“It’s a really great honor to be picked for the CIO role,” Wheeler told on Monday. “It’s been a great growing and learning experience.”

The tech chief cites support from Kenney and Derenick-Lopez as a key factor in moving forward with projects under his interim status. Now that the appointment is permanent, Wheeler describes his vision for the city’s tech operations that’s wildly different from the tensions of yore.

“I’m really excited about the relationship between OIT and [the Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation],” Wheeler said. “We support and learn from one another. I’ve worked with Tim [Wisniewski, head of ODDT] for many years. I have so much respect for him as well as Liana [Dragoman, the department’s deputy director] and all of their team.”

What’s he looking to change at OIT, which in past years has faced backlash over sunken costs and big price tags on IT projects? Wheeler offers a first priority in improving operational efficiency within the department.

“There are many services we can improve in our delivery, be it to departments or to the public,” Wheeler said. “There are huge opportunities to do good work with a customer relationship management tool.”

So far, one lesson from projects like the Philadelphia Department of Prisons software upgrade is OIT’s need to improve its user engagement before anything gets done, and explore additional ways to offer efficiency.

“Looking at creating new tools is a perfect opportunities to look at business process changes,” Wheeler said. “Often, we don’t seize the opportunity to do that. I want to bring organizational change management as a component of our replacing of legacy technology. It’s an opportunity to improve things and put people in a position to do more complicated, high-touch tasks where they connect with the public.”

One thing both Brennan and Wheeler might agree on is the need for the city to be better at recruiting tech talent (though Brennan might have thoughts on how to get there), which is a challenge also faced by the private sector even despite its higher salaries.

“We need a pipeline coming into our tech operations, and we need to demonstrate that there’s real value in working with government,” said Wheeler, who describes himself as a public servant at heart. “It’s incumbent upon us to understand how we can change our culture and make it a more palatable experience.”

The tech chief floats the idea of a public event to both share thoughts on government work and make the case for public service.

“I’m happy to talk to any one who’s interested” Wheeler said. “I’m only asking for a two-year commitment. Think of it like the Peace Corps.”

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