No matter the level of government, agencies must continuously analyze how to modernize their technology systems. Citizens deserve to interact and receive services from their government in the same manner that they perform daily tasks with ease and flexibility.
Whether it is paying the cable bill any time of day, receiving an alert from the electric company about a power outage, or downloading five years’ worth of bank records directly to a smartphone, government should operate with the same capabilities as many other integrated services that utilize the latest technology.
Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s government has fallen well below the technological curve. Millions of dollars have been spent on several expensive systems that have not worked properly or were never even launched. These technology fails are not an unfamiliar discovery, and they have cost taxpayers more than $100 million since 2007. I have raised concerns and delivered criticisms over the years about these systems through our many audits and investigations.
Beyond the significant financial loss, many residents and businesses have felt the heartache, stress, and hardship caused by the city’s poor oversight and spendthrift habits with technology. A few examples that emphasize the genuine impact to Philadelphians and businesses:
Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal (CAMA) system. The city paid $4.3 million to build a system to assist with mass real estate appraisals that was never developed. The city then moved forward with its new property assessment initiative, which was supposed to create accurate assessments and tax bills. Our 2014 review found assessments with incorrect floor plans and missing data for bathrooms and bedrooms. The assessment overhaul has resulted in more than 50,000 appeals due to inaccuracies, which has left homeowners and businesses with ongoing legal headaches to ensure their assessments are correct.
Licenses and Inspections system “eClipse.” Several audits performed by our office under the Nutter administration found the inspection monitoring system failed to accurately track inspections and approvals. The response from the prior administration was, “Don’t worry because eClipse will fix that.” Fast-forward two years: The new system is still not working as planned and inspectors are using the old software, which has been known for allowing vacant and dangerous properties to go undetected. It is disheartening to hear stories about families who cannot sleep at night because of the creaking noises coming from the adjacent home, as they pray it does not collapse.
Five water billing systems. The city paid $50 million for five different systems from 2007 through 2012, and it continues to pay for ongoing maintenance. Our audit of the latest system shortly after it was implemented found customers were not being billed accurately. We found instances in which a resident’s monthly bill went from $98 to $331,160 and a commercial property owner’s went from $2,600 to $57,000 in one month. For those on fixed incomes and small bottom lines, this type of sticker shock would cause intense panic.
Philly 311. Our 2011 audit of the $6 million system found that 93 percent of the calls went unmonitored. The system was not alleviating 911 emergency calls and operators were not available 24 hours per day, which is still the case today. While the system has improved over the years by incorporating mobile technology and improved community outreach, our office still receives inquiries from frustrated residents who cannot reach the desired agency to assist them with their needs.
In most instances, the failures have occurred because the individual systems throughout city departments cannot communicate with each other. Key decision-makers overseeing these contracts should be seeking the experience and advice from our tremendous tech community before entering a major system upgrade.
More important, every department needs to ensure accountability throughout all stages of technology contracts. Simply put, a department should void payments to a vendor who does not deliver the quality of product within the scheduled timeline as stipulated by the contract.
Philadelphians deserve a government that operates in the 21st century.
Alan Butkovitz is the Philadelphia city controller. Alan.Butkovitz@phila.gov