Rich Negrin has dreamt of this day.
At least that’s what the city’s Managing Director told 250 city IT staff last month before introducing Adel Ebeid as the city’s first ever Chief Innovation Officer and their new boss.
Favorite baseball team: Yankees, he answered with great trepidation. “I aspire to be a Phillies fan,” he said.
Favorite Music Artist: Bruce Springsteen and The Doors
Favorite Movie: ‘The Godfather Part II’ and ‘As Good as It Gets.’
Favorite Food: Thai food, “I am an aspiring chef who cooks a new meal each month,” he said.
Little Known Fact: Played college soccer
“The weight of leadership is often taken for granted, and so we have put in all the hours to find the right guy,” Negrin said. “And this is the right guy.”
Ebeid, walking to the microphone on stage in a vast conference hall at the Convention Center, referred to himself as “vertically challenged,” perhaps 5’9″ to Negrin’s hulking height advantage of more than six inches, winning passing laughter from his diverse crew of employees. Throughout the hour-long session, Ebeid seemed to be well-received by what appeared to be more than half of all city IT personnel. He shared the stage with Negrin and his immediate predecessor, former interim CTO Tommy Jones, who has expressed interest in staying on board.
When the time came for staff questions, the deepest conversation came from on an unsurprising topic: the city’s controversial IT consolidation. It’s been more than two years since Mayor Nutter first signed the executive order combining all city technology services under then CTO Allan Frank. With a new IT chief in, where does consolidation stand?
First, let’s have a definition, of sorts. What does IT consolidation mean?
In governments at every level across the country, as information technology came to prominence in recent decades, individual agencies and departments developed their own teams and strategies. In Philadelphia’s case, until summer 2009, the Water Department, for example, had its own IT staff, who were directed by the commissioner and funded by its own internal budget, with a much smaller central IT team sharing overall network features.
These are the people in charge of network stability, process security, software upgrades, hardware maintenance and, increasingly, where innovative good government initiatives ought to come from. And, aside from some internal city user groups, those people were largely separated by department, not skill set.
That created, the thinking goes, inefficiencies, inequalities and conflicting strategies. Sharing staff, resources and direction could cut costs and improve service. Though IT consolidation is a recognized, if challenging, task across various levels of government nationwide, the process here, many in city government say, has been anything been smooth.
It’s something that Ebeid told his new employees he knew.
“If there is any chaos in your world, I hope to bring some order,” Ebeid told the city IT employees in his introduction. “But we have a lot of work to do. In my early conversations, I’ve learned that a lot of us feel consolidation has gone slowly but is being done the right way. Some of our [city] commissioners, though, feel consolidation has been oversold and under-delivered. We need to find common ground.”
Ebeid said he needs to better assess the consolidation by hearing more perspective from those involved, “without the emotion that can sometimes come out for a subject like this.”
Ebed went on then: “We also need to be able to answer the question: why are we consolidated and is it doing the job we need it to do?”
Some number of city employees with whom Technically Philly has spoken would snicker at that comment. Among various agency heads and some IT staff brought into the newly named Office of Innovation and Technology during this move, it’s clear that the consolidation has been a mess, they say.
“We consolidated formally on July 1, 2010. Nothing tremendously broke on July 1. You didn’t need to report on that because it didn’t happen. There was a tremendous amount of fear of the unknown. I had to work with the unions [During Ebeid’s staff introduction, a representative of AFSCME 2187, which represents 150 city IT staff, asked if he would support their more cost-efficient employees than outside consultants. Ebeid said: “I want to make sure we hold on to civil service for the right reasons. If you bring value, there’s nothing to worry about”]. Just because we were officially in charge didn’t mean we knew the inner-workings of every department, so why rearrange the deck chairs? My goal was that the first printer ribbon that ran out and wasn’t replaced was my fault. Goal one on day one was for the workers in the department, to keep doing what they were doing. Why would anything change then? The second thing, what we did do, was establish service level agreement and a governing structure to establish the roles of IT driven by each department head and the CTO. We had to be able to drive what needs to be done, while we’re trying to build community. So that means certain things should be centralized: the network, maybe payroll, but the systems that run the Streets Department should be closest to the Streets department. The infrastructure elements are what we want to centralize more. So in this consolidation, I hoped that the business side of things should stay close to the IT lead in the department,while rather than that department having to install and update software and everything else, we could share was doesn’t need to be recreated. I [started] creating a hybrid model, and I’m proud of that. The baby cold end up turning ugly, but I set it on the right path.”
“They just stopped answering calls,” said one deputy commissioner, who asked to not be named while criticizing another department. “It was like they disappeared to figure out consolidation and stopped doing what we needed them to do.”
Allan Frank and Tommy Jones, in addition to many staff close to them, often defended criticisms of their output, particularly during the consolidation, by saying the IT department was understaffed, a refrain other city leaders criticize.
“The top of a city agency should not be using department size as an excuse. We are all doing more with less,” said one agency commissioner watching the IT consolidation from afar and asking for anonymity.
For examples of other city departments that have done similar work “much more quietly and effectively,” the commissioner pointed to the effective consolidation of the Parks and Rec departments, similar efficiencies made at the Office of Fleet Management and improved efforts at Licenses and Inspections while taking a budget cut. On Monday, Technically Philly reported on the two-year slow-down of a championed good government API project from L&I, blamed by some on OIT.
Many core OIT employees have come to the agency’s defense.
“When the executives and politicians understand software and services like they understand paving streets, we’ll see a sea change. They know that you can’t pave all the streets in a single year. Now we need them to know we don’t overhaul entire systems at a hackathon,” said an OIT staffer, who asked not to be named for speaking out publicly. “Things have gotten better, but we’re struggling to convince the other city agencies of that change because there’s not a good sense of how long this should take.”
In early 2011, during a conversation in the darkly lit lobby of the Phoenix building in Center City, the issue of consolidation came up with two then senior city IT officials, who also defended their progress.
“It was just [July 2010] that we got the consolidated budget passed. It’s been [more like a year, not two],” said Jeff Friedman, the then CTO Frank’s Chief of Staff, now working in the Mayor’s office. “If you are 300 pounds and say you’re going on a diet and you say you’ve just lost 10 pounds, you don’t say, ‘oh, I’m a failure because I am not 150 pounds that same year.’ You recognize a start and keep moving forward.”
Friedman went on: “I’ve talked to the city government old timers, and they’ll say, ‘yeah, they talked about consolidating city services in the 1980s. It never happened.’ Nothing happened. The executive order to consolidate services came on July 6, 2009. Allan came on in September. In less than a year, he moved forward a conversation that had been lingering for decades.”
Andrew Buss, a city IT program director, jumped in there: “Everything you want to do in city government is harder than you think it is.”
Of the fewer than 400 city employees that technically now answer to CIO Ebeid, “most of these guys are still sitting at the same desks, answering the same phone,” Councilman Bill Green told Technically Philly in January.
That’s just the slow burn that any full consolidation takes, says Jones, especially with IT.
“It’s going to be on-going for a couple years, this stuff doesn’t happen overnight. I was part of this in New Jersey, and we were planning for it in D.C.,” Jones said.
“The number one issue with consolidation is all about the culture of the people,” Jones went on. “All of these people have been reporting to a commissioner or a deputy commissioner. The whole concept of ‘Now I’m part of this other organization, but I’ve been working for the other one for 10 years.”
A big sell of the consolidation was cost savings: by pooling resources, talent and hardware. Through attrition, there has been some modest shrinking inside city IT, though some of those positions, Technically Philly has been told, are just open job vacancies. One way, Jones says he has cut costs and created culture is with private-partnership trainings.
Earlier this year, DOT welcomed Oracle in for a pro bono training session, something that IT leaders are sensitive around following the June controversy of Verizon gifts being made to then OIT Deputy CIO Joseph James. Jones has focused on projects that don’t exchange product, but rather do transfer ideas.
“We are seeing some of those savings already. We just need to improve on the customer service and infrastructure concerns that are slowing us down,” said Jones, citing two of his top three priorities while he was interim CTO.
This is what Ebeid has walked into.
“His first weeks involved sitting in on critical briefings on earthquakes and hurricanes, facing power outages and support for fire and police. I can’t imagine a more eventful week,” said Negrin. “This is true baptism by fire.”
And, having already started a moratorium on new city technologies, consolidation will keep the fire brewing. Ebeid has been involved in consolidations before, most notably with Jones while they worked together in New Jersey state IT. In Technically Philly’s first conversation with Ebeid, he was focused on leading fact-finding through his first 100 days, ending in early December, before committing to any broad strategies.
It could help to have a signature issue early in his tenure.
After years serving in New Jersey, his often celebrated work revamping the IT behind that state’s notorious Motor Vehicle Commission was crumbling, even as he transitioned to Philadelphia. Meeting expectations and changing the perception of his agency could be a start. How, if at all, he’ll do that remains uncertain.
“Really, I won’t make any promises in those first 100 days,” Ebeid said.