Articles

Philadelphia CIO Charlie Brennan: Tweaking the Tech Landscape

Chief Innovation Officer Charles Brennan replaced Adel Ebeid, and is bringing with him some structural changes of his own.

by / April 8, 2016
Philadelphia Chief Innovation Officer Charlie Brennan Courtesy of Charlie Brennan

When Jim Kenney replaced Michael Nutter this year as Philadelphia’s new mayor, there were some changes. Officials came and went, titles were tweaked, roles were shifted, and bold policies were forged in pursuit of that familiar promise of a new future for an old city.

As one of the nation’s leading govtech landscapes, Philadelphia’s changes in technology leadership are particularly noteworthy. Former Civic Tech Director Aaron Ogle resigned in March, his duties absorbed by Web and Application Services Director Kyle Odum.

Story Bellows, former director of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM), left her post last year, leaving behind a Twitter account of 1,174 followers who’ve not received a communique in six months. The new administration is abandoning MONUM and pursuing what the mayor’s office calls a “far more collaborative effort” under Rebecca Rhynhart’s cabinet-level Office of Administrative Services. MONUM didn’t live up to its potential, a spokesperson told Government Technology, because it wasn’t fully integrated into departments like it should have been.

The new office will advance on new projects, like an electronic procurement system, and continue old MONUM projects like the partnership with the Barcelona-based consultancy Citymart to develop innovative approaches to procurement, and continued involvement in initiatives like the city’s Innovation Academy and Innovation Fund.

And the straw who stirs the drink, Chief Innovation Officer Charles Brennan, replaced Nutter’s Adel Ebeid, bringing with him some structural changes of his own.

For one, city Chief Data Officer Tim Wisniewski is no longer responsible for managing the city’s Web services on top of his open data role. Web services was assigned to a dedicated manager, so each person can focus on their mission, Brennan explained. Open data, he said, is a top priority for his office, and he wants Wisniewski focused.

On April 5, the city made good on that claim, publishing salary data for the city’s entire public workforce searchable at data.philly.com, something the previous administration was unable to accomplish, Brennan said, though he didn’t know why.

Payroll data can be challenging to unlock, Brennan said, because not everyone is necessarily in favor of making the information public, and the city has to be careful not to jeopardize the safety of their undercover police officers. But initial reports indicate open data advocates are pleased.

“[The city has] released over 200 [data sets], but there’s a lot of fertile ground out there for releasing data sets to the citizens and for researchers,” Brennan said. “I have [Wisniewski] meeting with one of the deputy police commissioners next week to talk about some of the data to obtain from them, and I believe the police commissioner will in fact turn it over to us. And the kind of data we’re looking at is updated data on crime offenses as well as interactions with police.”

Like many city police departments, the PPD also collects demographic data on traffic and pedestrian stops to meet the requirements of a decades-old federal consent decree. President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing renewed the examination of such data following the highly publicized death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

“The citizen interaction stuff is also interesting,” Brennan said. “I’m sure people will do analysis by sex and race and location and things like that. It’s a real benefit, especially for researchers.”

Police data is among the most interesting and coveted resource a city can release, Brennan said.

A 21-year veteran of the police force himself, Brennan started on street patrol the same year that songs like Phil Collins’ Sussudio and Stevie Wonder’s Part-Time Lover blared from boom boxes crammed with D cell batteries. He didn’t stay on the street long, preferring instead to spend his years in the department’s IT office, where he stayed until 2006, helping to design and build, among other projects, a $500,000 communications network. After leaving the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD), Brennan served as deputy secretary of public radio services for the state of Pennsylvania, a principal of Carolus Consulting, and then a program manager at Alcatel-Lucent, working on large scale radio installations.

“Finding someone with this wealth of big-project IT experience is huge for our administration,” a city spokesperson told Government Technology by email. “It is imperative that we have a strong,  experienced leader to make these projects successful. In addition, Charlie knows the city processes and players from his time here at the PPD and is able to get things done.”

Brennan will need experience to draw on as he leads dozens of ongoing technology projects. In 2010, Nutter’s administration announced $120 million in capital funding to refresh the city’s many aging systems, and some of those facelifts remain unfinished today. An overhaul of the city’s tax system – called Taxpayer Information Processing System (TIPS) – is a particularly large and tortuous project that Brennan's office is charged with completing.

The 20-year-old tax system needs regular updates to reflect changes in the tax code, but the system was programmed in a language called ADABAS Natural, and the coders familiar with that technology have long since retired, Brennan said. The result is a backlog of system changes, a sub-optimal Revenue Department and a constituency that doesn’t get access to modern Web and mobile services. The city’s developing a modern replacement now, Brennan said.

Large systems, particularly tax systems, have a reputation for gaining momentum and escaping the control of its creators. There are a couple of ways to avoid that, said Brennan.

“One is if you look at how these systems evolve, there’s almost a direct relationship between the complexity of the system and its likelihood of failure,” he said. “What government tends to do, since they may not get money all the time, whenever they do get money, they try to throw everything and the kitchen sink into an RFP. … I’d like to remove the kitchen sinks from some of these things and bring some common sense to what we as a city are capable of managing.”

The second measure is to target vendors that are open to iterative development, Brennan said. The advantage of an approach like Agile is that it gives the customer an idea of how the solution will look and behave before development gets too far along and making changes becomes too costly or difficult.

“I think of it as storyboarding a movie,” said Brennan. “If you think about why they do that, it’s much easier to change those little drawings than after you get the actors in and you’re shooting real film.”

Other large legacy system rehauls that the new administration is bestowing with renewed attention include One Philly, a $20 million merger of human resources, payroll and pension data; the Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System; and a modernization of back-end HR and procurement systems that are managed by Rhynhart’s Office of Administrative Services with help from Brennan’s office.

He’s been too busy managing all the projects his office adopted from Nutter’s administration, Brennan said, but when he gets a chance to launch a project of his own, he’d like to attract a wider scope of vendors so the city has more choices.

“I’ve heard from vendors that I dealt with years ago that don’t want to come into the city because they view it either as very expensive in here or they believe the process as unbelievably onerous or even unfair,” Brennan said. “And I think I have to do some outreach to the vendor community and explain to them that it’s a square deal, it is fair … and I’m thinking about having a vendors conference or something like that where we do a show-and-tell where everyone talks about what they know about procurement in a big city.”

Editor's note: This story was updated at 11:15 a.m. on April 11, 2016, to correct Rebecca Rhynhart's title. She is with the Office of Administrative Services, not Budget and Program Evaluation.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.