The battle over civic innovation inside Philadelphia City Hall - Technical.ly Philly

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Apr. 21, 2016 1:00 pm

The battle over civic innovation inside Philadelphia City Hall

The Office of Innovation and Technology rose to prominence under Adel Ebeid, the city's first Chief Innovation Officer. Now, with a new CIO, where will it go next?

"I technically work for government, but in reality, I work for you," Ogle said at Ignite Philly.

(Photo by Kevin Monko)

On March 17, 2016, clad in a camel-colored blazer and jeans, Aaron Ogle took the stage at concert venue Johnny Brenda’s to give a talk about redesigning Phila.gov, the city’s clunky, hard-to-navigate website.

See, in Philadelphia, civic technologists are a little bit like rockstars. “Philly,” a well-known civic hacker once wrote, “is to civic technology what Nashville is to country music.” Fittingly, Ogle was speaking at the local creative class’s version of a rock show, a twice-annual lightning talk event called Ignite Philly.

The talks that night had ranged from the evolution of the city’s burlesque community to the trials of being racially ambiguous, and now, here was Ogle, the City of Philadelphia’s Civic Technology Director, talking about the hardships of paying your water bill online and what his team was doing to fix it — and the crowd was going wild. Yes, alcohol was involved. But there was a sense of feeling heard. Of seeing your government at work.

Staffing changes beg the question: End of an era or too soon to tell?

The city, Ogle said, is redesigning its website out in the open, on alpha.phila.gov, and every piece of feedback received gets sent directly to the team’s Slack group chat.

“I technically work for government,” Ogle said, “but in reality, I work for you.” The crowd cheered. Nashville, remember?

But one week later, Ogle made a surprising announcement.

He was leaving city government. Wait, what? Didn’t he just give an impassioned talk about the importance of public service? It didn’t seem to make any sense.

There were other head-scratchers, too. The city’s first Chief Innovation Officer, who had won numerous accolades for his work, resigned days before a new mayor entered office. The new CIO, an ex-cop and lifelong Philadelphian named Charlie Brennan, was a more traditional pick, more eager to talk about overhauling the city’s payroll system than rethinking how government tackles problems.

Those in civic tech circles, both inside and outside government, began to whisper: Just what exactly was happening to the Office of Innovation and Technology that they had come to know and admire?

It’s still early. Mayor Jim Kenney has barely been in office 100 days. The Kenney administration has its own priorities, ones that differ from Nutter’s, but it wants to be clear about this: it’s committed to innovation.

But what we are seeing is competing views of what a municipal tech department should be. Should it be akin to a startup, a high-profile, talent-grabbing powerhouse? Or should it be more like a services shop, a behind-the-scenes team that helps the rest of the city shine?

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During the early days of Brennan’s tenure, there were two leadership shakeups in the civic tech corner of OIT.

Under former CIO Adel Ebeid, Chief Data Officer Tim Wisniewski managed a team of technologists, led by Ogle, that was focused on building city websites and apps. It was a decision that Wisniewski’s predecessor, Mark Headd, had pushed for, a reflection of the fact that city apps are powered by the open data the city is working to release.

Brennan changed the management structure so that Wisniewski no longer oversaw that team and instead, managed only two open data staffers. “It’s a full-time job” to focus on open data, Brennan said in a interview.

But some felt the move suggested a lack of understanding around open data. “I think this change represents a somewhat old fashioned view of what the web team does and, perhaps, a lack of appreciation for what a CDO does (or can do),” wrote Headd in an email. Through a spokesman, Wisniewski declined to comment.

The other shakeup centered around Ogle’s departure.

Ogle, 35, did not live in the city — a requirement for all city employees, with just a few exceptions — and had applied for and received two six-month extensions that allowed him to remain in Narberth, where he lives with his family.

(The city grants a few permanent residency exemptions for positions that are historically difficult to hire, like property assessors and medical examiners, said city spokesman Mike Dunn.)

Charlie Brennan, the city's Chief Information Officer, in his new office.

Charlie Brennan, the city’s Chief Information Officer, in his new office. (Photo by Juliana Reyes)

Shortly after Brennan became CIO in January, Ogle asked the new tech chief if he would be open to a third extension. Ogle, whose family had been dealing with “fairly serious health issues,” he said, was up front with Brennan: he couldn’t commit to moving into the city. Brennan denied Ogle’s request.

“I can’t fault him for that at all,” Ogle said.

Since Ogle’s departure, his team has been left in a lurch. Two staffers tell Technical.ly that the team is now torn between completing one-off requests from city agencies and building a new phila.gov — a shift in priorities that frustrated engineer Gabriel Farrell and contributed to his leaving the city for a local adtech firm. Farrell called the reactive work “a misuse of resources.”

So is OIT a product shop or services shop? It’s unclear.

“No one’s saying, ‘This is the priority,'” said one city technologist who requested anonymity.

It doesn’t help that not everyone is a fan of the alpha project.

Two sources familiar with the situation said the more traditional city IT employees, the ones who have been there for years, saw the alpha project as disruptive. (And not in the Silicon Valley sense.) In the long term, the alpha team believed the new site could take pressure off agencies by tackling the most common city service issues that people call the city about. But in the short term, it took time away from supporting agencies’ web design needs.

"There's got to be more to IT than that."
Adel Ebeid

That divide between old guard and new guard was quiet but palpable, said three current and former staffers.

Clinton Johnson, a longtime OIT employee who recently left for mapping firm Esri, said the old guard questioned the longterm sustainability of projects like alpha.

“Some seemed troubled by the limited experience of the new directors and chiefs in designing and managing systems for use in such volumes,” Johnson wrote. “Particularly when it came to the idea of supporting solutions long-term.”

There were communication barriers, too.

He wrote: “Some veteran employees complained that often their advice in such matters, advice derived from years of experience in the industry, was too often rebuffed. Some others seemed to feel it inappropriate to offer such advice to people who were in significantly more senior roles than they.”

Will alpha live on?

It’s still unclear, but at OIT’s budget hearing on April 12, Brennan sounded committed to the project. He told City Council that his office was putting “an awful, awful lot of time and expense” into building a new site that would make it easier for the city to deliver services to Philadelphians.

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On December 30, 2015, Adel Ebeid, the city’s first Chief Innovation Officer, resigned. It was a difficult move, but he said it was important to read the writing on the wall.

“The first sign,” Ebeid said in a January interview, “is when your inbox goes from 500 emails a day to less than 100.” That’s when you know that your days are numbered, he said, with a laugh.

But how does a 20-year veteran of New Jersey state government become old news in Philadelphia in just five years? Innovation, maybe. Innovation is a risky god.

At City Council's Comcast franchise renewal hearing. Chief Innovation Officer Adel Ebeid is in the glasses, second from left.

At City Council’s Comcast franchise renewal hearing. Chief Innovation Officer Adel Ebeid is in the glasses, second from left. (Photo by Juliana Reyes)

Ebeid, 52, was lured to Philadelphia by Mayor Nutter and Managing Director Rich Negrin, who gave him “a mandate to experiment,” Ebeid said in a March interview. So he moved his wife and 10-month-old daughter into the city, and in the years to follow, people started paying attention. Ebeid was no longer an anonymous bureaucrat but a public figure, starring in videos about making Philadelphia “an innovation-friendly city,” cutting the ribbon at a new municipal “innovation lab” and giving talks about his work. GovTech named him on its 2014 list of top civic innovators, saying that under Ebeid’s leadership, Philadelphia had become a “civic technology hotspot.” The White House named him a “champion of change.”

Perhaps most strikingly, Ebeid proved that city government could compete with the private sector for talent.

Ebeid knew how to recruit technologists. He sold them on his vision. He offered them flexibility and the freedom to work on ambitious projects, instead of solely being beholden to department IT requests. Ebeid “carved out a place inside of the bureaucracy” for untraditional work like the alpha.phila gov redesign, Ogle said during his Ignite talk.

But some say that Ebeid ruffled one too many feathers, frustrating the old guard at OIT with his flashy young hires, his shift to mobile devices and to the cloud and his focus on that shimmery concept: innovation.

“I could see how people would think we spent more time on innovation,” Ebeid said, when we met with him in late March at Square One Coffee, a place that he and Wisniewski liked to work.

But, Ebeid said he was just as focused, if not more so, on the back-office functions of OIT. “The back office consumed more than 80 to 90 percent of my time,” he said. “I just never showed it.”

“I see where people get innovation fatigue,” Ebeid continued. People would say, It’s too fluffy. It’s not concrete enough. “I get it.”

It’s worth noting that Ebeid’s heavy focus on innovation aligned with the Nutter administration’s goal to raise Philadelphia’s profile, to showcase the city as an international destination. On the other hand, Kenney’s stated goal is to “deliver efficient, effective services to all Philadelphians,” as he said in his inaugural address.

So it makes sense that he chose Brennan as his CIO — a longtime IT project manager known for his expertise in “big, unglamorous systems,” as Azavea founder Robert Cheetham put it. (Cheetham worked under Brennan at the Police Department in the ’90s.)

When asked why the Kenney administration didn’t keep Ebeid, Chief Administrative Officer Rebecca Rhynhart said, through a spokesman: “In his years on City Council, Jim Kenney became well aware of the numerous back-office issues plaguing OIT in particular and the city government as a whole. So as mayor he wanted an IT leader who was focused and knowledgeable on the core systems, and Charlie fit this bill.”

Kenney chose Brennan to keep the trains running on time, not for his taste for innovation. The innovation team, led by Andrew Buss, now reports to Rhynhart, who oversees the city’s traditionally back-office agencies, like Procurement, Fleet Management and OIT. Rhynhart describes it as a more holistic approach, where innovation won’t be limited to just OIT or just a mayoral office. It sounds like a response to what Kenney’s team saw as a shortcoming of Ebeid’s OIT.

But Ebeid thinks there’s room for a CIO to do both — keep the trains running on time and execute a bigger vision.

“It’s sad when CIOs are relegated to just running the network,” he said. “There’s got to be more to IT than that.”

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What we’ve seen at OIT in the last three months is what happens when a new administration comes into power. It’s normal for a new commissioner, like Brennan, to appoint new lieutenants and to have his own set of priorities. This is what Azavea founder Cheetham tells us when we visit him in his new office in Callowhill last month.

“What’s not normal,” Cheetham said, “is the media glare.”

And he’s right. This is as much a story about how the tech industry has changed as it is about a tech department’s growing pains.

When Ebeid started five years ago, no one reported on the employees who left in his first 100 days (and people did leave, Ebeid said). Government technology is different now, due to the rise of Code for America, open data and yes, media outlets that cover the movements of civic technologists hawkishly.

That’s one thing that the Kenney administration seems to be learning. Though several in Kenney’s cabinet are 35 or younger, Kenney and Brennan have both showed an old-school understanding of government, especially when it comes to tech.

Like when Kenney said that the city couldn’t hire talented technologists because it couldn’t afford it or when Brennan told Council President Darrell Clarke that the city couldn’t compete with startup perks like nap rooms and free food. That may have been true years ago, but that isn’t the case anymore. Technologists around the country have flocked to city government in hopes of fulfilling a loftier goal: making a difference.

Will the city be able to hold on to its tech talent? The answer has to do with Brennan, but there are also larger forces at work. Like the city’s policies around remote work, time-tracking and professional development, all of which engineer Farrell said drove him to leave. (Rhynhart has said she wants to develop training programs for city employees.)

As for civic innovation and tech scene engagement in the Kenney administration, maybe it will live on in different departments. The Commerce Department, for one, has continued to engage with the local tech scene. Just this month, it launched an RFP page to connect startups and city agencies and utilities, and Commerce Director Harold Epps attended a startup’s ribbon cutting.

David Thornburgh, CEO of government watchdog the Committee of Seventy, said that while it’s crucial for Kenney to continue focusing on innovation, it’s still too early to make any judgments on the matter.

“We need to give the Mayor some time to figure out how to put his own team on the field and figure out how he’s going to continue the momentum,” he wrote.

But, listen, the momentum is fading.

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Juliana Reyes

Juliana Reyes was Technical.ly's editorial product lead after reporting on the Philadelphia tech scene for four years. She's co-president of the Asian American Journalists Association Philadelphia chapter and a two-time Philadelphia News Award winner for "Community Reporting of the Year." The Bryn Mawr College grad lives in West Philly, likes her food spicy and wears jumpsuits often.

  • LifeCycle Software

    Excellent article. You hit all the points. We in the tech industry are watching closely.

  • fumigator

    Infuriating. This guy should have taken his DROP payment and put himself in the nap room instead of unraveling years of progress. This new mayor is backsliding into the malaise of the Street administration.

  • DDW

    Civic innovation tech community continue your great work. You don’t need official government support. The data is public and yours to innovate with.

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