Philadelphia CIO

Philadelphia's CIO since 1993 has overseen the implementation of 49 new applications, the creation of a tech training center and the consolidation of six data centers.

by / September 30, 1996
Philadelphia Chief Information Officer John Carrow is well known across the country for his organization and leadership of the city's information technology strategies and applications. Since 1993, 49 new applications have been implemented, including a multi-department geographic information system. And in recognition that technology doesn't run itself, a technology training center, which serves about 8,000 students a year, was created.

But Philadelphia's IT use wasn't always this organized or aggressive. When Carrow became the city's first CIO in 1993, one of his initial observations was that there was a degree of IT expertise within individual departments, but no overall city strategy or communication. "There were pockets of technology people who didn't even talk to each other," he said.

And this wasn't because Philadelphia's government had a "primitive" telephone system without voice mail, and lacked a citywide e-mail system. "Even if there were good communications devices, there were enough walls [between departments] that they probably wouldn't be talking anyhow," he said.

The city CIO position was created as part of a city government reform effort fueled by a near financial meltdown and a new mayor. Edward G. Rendell became mayor in 1992 and brought a new administration with an agenda to change how things worked. "We had 200-plus years of defined manual processes," Carrow said, and inertia had long been a part of the city government's culture. The time was ripe for some changes.

The CIO position was created after a task force appointed by the new mayor took a look at a range of issues across Philadelphia's government. The working group investigating information technology recommended, among other things, having a focal point for developing IT policies and coordinating activities across department lines. Rendell quickly embraced the recommendations, and issued an executive order establishing the Mayor's Office of Information Services in 1993, with a CIO accountable to the mayor.

As the new kid on the block in a large city government, one could expect commissioners to resist changes and try to short-circuit any moves by the CIO which could disrupt their department operations. One could also anticipate that the mayor's office would have to referee friction between departments and the new CIO.

But, fortunately, it didn't happen that way. "People were looking for guidance, and weren't looking for a fight," Carrow said. "We had our backs to the wall financially. Everyone recognized -- even the unions -- that we had to change how we did business. We had to row our boat and we knew we better row in the same direction."

Carrow -- a 1966 U.S. Military Academy graduate who later earned a master's degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of Illinois -- had no government experience except for 11 years as an Army officer. When tapped as Philadelphia's first CIO, Carrow had been a high-ranking technology manager for 16 years at General Electric Co.

He came to Philadelphia as an unknown quantity to commissioners, but with some authority over their departments. With this in mind, Carrow said he began his tenure by "building relationships with all the key commissioners. I had to build trust."

First, he sent each of the 50-plus department managers questionnaires to learn their expectations of him and get feedback on current conditions. Carrow spent his first month visiting each of the city departments to get a better understanding of their needs and operations, and to learn about their information technology perspectives.

Carrow said he found that many of the department heads really didn't have an IT perspective. "These are great people running their businesses," he said, "but some departments' comprehension of technology was nonexistent."

Armed with this initial data, Carrow formed a task force with membership from across city government. The goal was to generate a strategic plan, which is now used as a roadmap of where the city is and where it is going with technology development. It provides a common point of reference for all departments and facilitates coordination across the city to maximize investments made on information technology. The first report was finalized in March 1994, and annual updates, complete with scorecards on progress, have been issued annually (Government Technology, February 1995).

Carrow said that the plan, which maps out city IT strategies to 2000, was an important element in getting departments on the same page. The process and strategic plan opened communication flows between departments which had previously been going in 50 different directions.

A key reason departments have so far been sticking to the strategic plan is that they were instrumental in its creation, Carrow said, giving them a stake in successfully implementing the plan.

Communication among department IT managers didn't stop with publication of the strategic plan. Every six months, technology managers from across the city meet for a day, where there may be presentations from consultants or vendors, or awards and recognition handed out. It's also an opportunity to network and get updates on projects in other departments.

But IT management did not change overnight. This was not entirely unexpected by Carrow, who realized that more than a strategic plan and meetings with commissioners were needed.

Carrow's approach was to get some early wins and accomplishments which could build momentum for larger changes. "I realize that the way to build confidence is through accomplishments," he said. "We're still building, but the initial hurdle was overcome in the first year."

One early move was a partnership between the city and Bell Atlantic to build CityNet, which now connects 200 buildings in Philadelphia with a fiber-optic ring. When the city network was in place and working, "there was a groundswell of interest among departments," Carrow said, which led to more pooling of
IT resources.

Another important element to Carrow's success is the placement of his office on city government organizational charts. Having the CIO report to the mayor rather than being a separate and equal department is very significant in working with the rest of the city government, Carrow said. "It sets out the tone and message that you are a peer in terms of the business function of government."

Another important element, Carrow said, is his membership on a key control panel called the Initiative Compliance Committee (ICC). ICC reviews all department budgets, and having the CIO there "sends the message to commissioners that this is a key player."

Carrow has also established a good working relationship with the City Council, which is helpful to secure technology funding. He said that the relationship began when, for the first time, someone told the council how much was being spent on automation in the city government.

"They had no idea how much was spent on technology," he said. "So the strategic plan gave them an idea of what the game plan was, and [the City Council] recognized the need to change." Investment by the city in technology has increased, and Carrow said the council has been supportive.

Also helping IT funding is the "Productivity Bank," created during Carrow's tenure. When a department needs funding to implement an IT project, it can borrow from a $25 million fund set aside for improving productivity. The money is paid back after the project is up and running from savings created by the automation. Several projects have successfully used this seed money, including a digital mug shot system used by the Police Department.

One change that could have led to some major battles was a consolidation of the city's six data centers. So far, Carrow has been able to reduce the centers to three, without layoffs and with minimal friction.

When asked what advice he would give to other CIOs considering data center consolidation, Carrow said to use financial analysis as a key argument because "it will clearly show the cost benefit of doing it.

"And recognize that while it is the right thing to do, it's not necessarily forced consolidation," he said. "There are a whole lot of other things you can do before you push this."

Carrow has thus far been successful in organizing Philadelphia's IT management, helping the city improve service, efficiency and revenue collection. His leadership provides a great example to other cities, and even states, of how technology can be managed across department boundaries.

And this may be just the beginning. The mayor's term doesn't end until 2000, probably giving Carrow a few more years to continue working to make Philadelphia an IT leader.

John C. Carrow
has consolidated
IT leadership
and data centers
in Philadelphia,
the nation's fifth
largest city.
What steps did
he take to make
this complex
process work?