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Philly's IT Reorganization Receives Barbs and Praise

Controversial changes to Philadelphia’s technology offices raise questions about what it means to be a CIO, and what kind of organizational structure best enables innovation.

Soon after Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney was inaugurated in January, he gained a reputation in some circles as the Anti-Nutter, often doing the opposite of what people believe his predecessor would have done. The man he replaced, Mayor Michael Nutter, who held office for eight years, stewarded over a city that became renowned for its technological prowess. 

It's still too early to tell whether Kenney will succeed in upholding that legacy, but his approach is proving different, indeed. Officials herald the new organizational structure as a salve to the city’s operational scrapes and a future vehicle for an innovative 18F-style group. But Nutter fans claim the CIO role is being buried in the org chart and that Philadelphia’s technology effort is flagging.

The changes to Philadelphia’s technology structure and approach are substantial. They include a new chief information officer, Charles Brennan, who was appointed in January; the shutting down of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM); and vast changes to the city’s overall reporting structure.

Instead of reporting to the city manager and the mayor, as in the old administration, the CIO now reports to a new office, the chief administrative officer, a role held by former budget director Rebecca Rhynhart. The CAO’s office also appropriated some of the CIO’s innovation responsibilities, leaving more traditional functions like legacy system upgrades, IT capital projects and the administration of two franchise agreements to the CIO.

The changes are controversial if for no other reason than the loss of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) as a symbol of innovation. Philadelphia’s MONUM spawned experiments like Textizen, a mobile texting platform to help working groups sustain audience engagement, and FastFWD, a public-safety-centric startup accelerator. 

MONUM was seen as a way to foster innovation in the city, but it only worked if the office was given a chance to mature, according to proponents of the model. But after funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies ran out, MONUM’s limited reach became evident, and allowing that flame to die was the right decision, said Andrew Buss, Philadelphia’s director of innovation management.

“They were limited in the sense that because they were in the mayor’s office, they were not really embedded well enough in a lot of the city departments to have trust with those departments,” Buss said. “I look at our work as a model where we really do reach across departments and convince people that we’re interesting enough and important enough to work with and then it’s kind of a collaborational model going forward so that we are involved with many more departments that way.”

Last month, the CAO’s office became an even stronger focus of the city’s technology effort. A two-person open data team and seven-person Alpha team were moved from the Office of Innovation and Technology (OIT) to the CAO’s office following a “culture change” brought on by Charles Brennan’s leadership style, the Philly Voice reported. The two teams were combined into a new entity called the Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation that reported to Rhynhart. City officials explained the move aligns with the mayor’s vision for an influential and integrated innovation and performance arm operating out of the CAO’s office, while allowing the new CIO to focus on serving IT solutions to its customers inside city government.

Chief Data Officer Tim Wisniewski was also removed from under the CIO’s office and relieved of his Web service responsibilities, allowing him to focus on open data full-time. Former Philadelphia Chief Data Officer Mark Headd tweeted support of the new structure earlier this month, piggybacking on a comment he made last year that, “I think shoehorning a public-sector CDO into the tech agency, reporting up to CIO is a mistake.”

“I think what’s happening now is actually good and it’s good for the city,” Buss said. “The advantage of creating this new office — CAO — is that it really does have as its central mission the idea of improving government efficiency in some way. We think of technology as so embedded in innovation and also in improving processes. It’s kind of a logical fit in my mind for a lot of our work to be very closely aligned with this chief administrative officer.”

In recent years, the CIO’s office has become a hub of innovation and cauldron for brewing internal process improvements. But in Philadelphia, much of that has been shifted to the CAO’s office. Rhynhart’s challenges don’t always require technological solutions, but her job is to improve processes, so the transition is understandable, particularly for a mayor who, at least for now, is focusing on internal operations over outreach.

And improving Philadelphia’s operations is keeping Rhynhart busy. Her office is modernizing procurement through the launch of a small-bid platform called Dispatch, building an electronic submission system, creating a more user-centric website through Alpha and updating the city’s capital and space management.

Rhynhart spends her days thinking about things like how much office space a city worker uses. Today, Rhynhart explained, the city uses about 200 square feet per employee, while the private sector uses around 150 to 180 square feet per employee. If they can rework how staff are laid out, the city could get out of some of its leased space and save taxpayer money, she said.

“Right now, the city manages its physical space on blueprints,” Rhynhart said. “There’s no system. Where everyone sits in every city building is done on blueprints and interns walk the floors every so often and note down physically on paper where people are sitting and where changes have gone. That is not where a modern government should be. So, we’re looking to procure some sort of space management tool.”

Rhynhart may not be a technologist, but she has an affinity for detail. Despite the criticism for his organizational changes, Mayor Jim Kenney may just know what he’s doing. And it’s not all blueprints. Rhynhart’s vision is a government that allows innovation to spread quickly.

Performance Philly

Through a partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts, the department of the Philadelphia Chief Administrative Officer also is striving toward performance-based management. As part of a program called Performance Philly, the office will meet with city departments and cross-departmental teams. The meetings are to be centered around creating accountability and identifying causes of sub-par performance.

“This organizational structure really makes the most sense because it is a cabinet-level position that is elevating all the support functions of the government and focusing and focusing on efficiency and effectiveness across government,” said CAO Rebecca Rhynhart. “It is not in the mayor’s office, which I actually think is important because I’m much closer to all of the departments in this structure and equal level to the managing director and the finance director. To have a cabinet-level position that’s focused on modernization, efficiency and effectiveness is just a way to elevate it and help with execution, because I think a lot of it comes down to execution.”

“We’re calling the new office the Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation because the idea is that once the Alpha website is finished, hopefully later this summer,” she said, “then that team can function almost like the way 18F functions and can be an internal consultant to other departments around the city.”

It’s still too early to judge how well the city’s new approach to technology and innovation is working, according to former Philadelphia CIO Adel Ebeid, who estimates that the city has until early fall before any criticism may be warranted, if there’s not a clear vision and road map in place by then.

“From having worked 28 years in government, the head of technology, regardless of what that title is, really needs to be wired to the person who’s driving the agenda. And sometimes it takes a while to figure out what the right balance is between keeping the lights on and innovating with intent moving forward,” said Ebeid.

The emergence of titles like the chief digital officer or Philadelphia’s CAO raises questions of what all these roles mean, how they fit together and where priorities should lie, he said.

“Time will tell if that’s really a brand-new role with a brand-new portfolio or if that’s the CIO reimagined,” Ebeid said. “Regardless of what we call those titles, I really think the three most important things are the executive courage to make things happen, the recognition that technology is important for cities to move forward, and [that] innovation is important to modernize the services that government offers to citizens. As long as those three key ingredients are intersecting, I think technology in that city should flourish and go way beyond anyone’s expectations.”

Not all are so forgiving. Rich Negrin, the city’s former managing director, said that throwing out the projects, offices and relationships built by the previous administration is a regression.

“I don’t think the structure matters all that much with one very clear exception,” he said. “I do believe that if you’re going to prioritize innovation and technology across the city, it’s the most important administrative thing you’re engaged in because it touches everything. And if you’re looking to drive efficiencies and make an impact, there’s no better ROI than investing in technology and investing into people in the technology side. The CIO, I think, has to report to the mayor.”

Philadelphia evolved into a technology powerhouse thanks to the former CIO’s close working relationship with the previous mayor, Negrin said. Technically, Ebeid reported to Negrin, but in reality it was closer to a dual-reporting role, he explained, where Ebeid had much more direct contact with Mayor Nutter than any other commissioner. That structure was created to emphasize the role of technology and innovation in the city.

One of government’s most frequently cited shortcomings is how ponderous it is. Just when it looks like something is finally getting done, new leadership enters and replaces the old programs before they had a chance to mature and affect any potential for change they might have harbored. And that’s exactly what’s happening here, Negrin said.

“They’ve created an additional layer there where not only is the CIO not reporting to the city’s managing director, but is reporting to a new role [the CAO], and we all know that new roles really struggle in government,” he said. “Take a look at who they’ve hired. Take a look at their priorities and what’s happening. … I’m OK with that if you just come out and say it, but to say that you care about innovation and then you make [these] hiring decisions.”

Improving processes internally is important, Negrin admitted, but working with external partners and building relationships with the community should be a city priority too. Philadelphia had a set of innovation initiatives underway — a Mayor’s Innovation Fund, The Philadelphia Social Innovations Lab, an Innovation Academy, as well as community outreach programs for STEM education and hackathons — that needed further nurturing. But judging by the city’s approach today, it doesn’t look like the new mayor is interested in doing that, Negrin said.

“Are they doing any of that stuff? They’re not,” he said. “They’re using [the lab] as what I didn’t want it to be, which is a glorified conference room. I’m hearing from the community that many of the relationships we had worked really hard to forge with the local tech community — which is thriving here in Philadelphia — is just not there anymore. Folks are paying attention to this because what the administration could have done, and what I really hope they’ll do … is if they could build on what we did as a foundation, not unravel a lot of it. And some of it’s being unraveled.”

CIO Charles Brennan said he’s confounded by these criticisms because things are much better under the new structure. He explained several misconceptions people have about the new structure, the changes to his office, and the future of innovation in Philadelphia. Reporting directly to the mayor, for instance, would not be favorable, Brennan said.

“I think I get a bigger say in a way, because Rebecca meets with the mayor on a regular basis and concerns that I have go through her, and I’ve been here five months now and I can tell you I have not had one issue,” Brennan said. “I don’t believe the last CIO sat down with Mayor Nutter and told him about all the projects — I don’t believe that that happened.”

A Philadelphia city official who spoke to Government Technology on the condition of anonymity said the new structure makes for a more responsive CIO office. “I think people are thrilled that [Brennan] is here and that he is focusing on what we need to run our operations and function, and we need to do core things and it was hard to get that done,” he said. “It would be great [to do more innovation] if we were in a place where we could do it all, but we’re not there yet. We have a long way to go. A really, really long way.”

In contrast, for years, major systems needed to keep the city running were not getting the attention they needed, according to the source. “We would have problems with [the systems], we would reach out, we wouldn’t really get solutions, we wouldn’t get answers,” he said. “They would call back and, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re going to look into it.’ You just never got real clear answers.”

According to Brennan, a comparison of the two mayors’ organizational charts reveals that while the structures are vastly different, the CIO reports to a similar role in both cases — the city manager in former Mayor Nutter’s case and the CAO in Mayor Kenney’s case. Kenney’s city manager oversees many more offices than Negrin’s did, so reporting to the city manager would also not give the CIO enough face time, Brennan pointed out.

“I think what [Negrin’s] looking at is a structure that he’s not familiar with and never worked under,” Brennan said. “So, I don’t know how he would ever know how things are working here. I wouldn’t know Rich Negrin if he walked in the door, to be honest with you.”

As for criticisms that the city’s innovation functions are being shut down, Brennan responded by saying it’s simply not true, and that everything is still operating the same as it has been or better.

“The only thing we do with the Innovation Lab is we open it up to more people to use it than had been used before,” Brennan said. “It’s still exactly where it is, it’s got the same equipment in it, the same people and more still use it. The Innovation Academy is going to go forward and we’re going to have an outside vendor do that because our long-term plan is to bring that inside.”

As for the employees who were upset by the culture change enforced upon Brennan’s entrance, the CIO defended his decisions, particularly his enforcement of the city’s rule requiring employees to work in the office.

“I believe some people who were hired under the prior administration may have been led to believe they could work remotely, but it absolutely violates the policy here, and I enforce the policy. And I believe the policy is correct,” he said. “I think it’s a much more collaborative atmosphere when people work together; working remotely I don’t think it's necessarily a good idea for the city now.”

The most important thing is that OIT serves its internal customers well, and their customers are much happier with this new arrangement than they were under Nutter, Brennan said.

“My customers are the police department, the fire department, licenses inspections, the water department,” he said. “I could go on and on and on. They are my customers. When I go around to my customers, the ones that I have to be successful for, they will tell you universally that they like the approach we are taking in this administration, which is for me to serve their needs. They set the agenda. I carry out the agenda.”

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