Three years ago, when John Carrow became Philadelphia's first-ever chief information officer, the city's information systems and services were as bankrupt as its treasury. Desktop computers in 45 departments were two generations out of date. A number of large-scale technology projects--including a $3 million payroll, personnel and pension implementation--had crashed and burned. The last place anyone at City Hall turned to for help was from the technical staff at any of a half-dozen municipal data centers.
Carrow was brought in at cabinet-level rank as part of Mayor Edward Rendell's plan to reengineer Philadelphia government. His mission was more than responding to pressure to "do something about the computers." The Rendell administration was banking on technology to have a large role in pulling Philadelphia out of a decade of insolvency and into an era of over-the-top services supported by a seamless network of integrated data systems accessible to private citizens as well as 7,000 bureaucrats in 200 city buildings.
Carrow started by developing a strategic plan for more than $80 million in annual IT spending fragmented among individual program budgets. Then, drawing off of a 16-year career at General Electric Corp., he created a business-oriented Mayor's Office of Information Services to implement the plan.
For the IT staff, the direction was clear: Satisfy your "customers" in other city departments, or else information services will be outsourced. "At my first all-hands staff meeting, I said I was going to operate the department as a business," Carrow recalls. "And if, as a business, we can't satisfy our customers, we might as well turn the business over to the private sector and let them run it."
"He made us wake up and empowered us," says Liza Casey, GIS program manager, who like other IT administrators was given unprecedented authority for decisions aimed at standardizing hardware, software and operations support.
"In terms of culture change, you'd be hard-pressed to find a place where more IT change had taken place in such a short time," says Michael Masch, a former Philadelphia budget director who is now budget director at the University of Pennsylvania.
Taking advantage of an innovative Philadelphia revolving loan fund known as the "Productivity Bank," which helps fund the upfront costs of technology upgrades that will pay for themselves through improved efficiency, Carrow forged partnerships with department heads on long-term initiatives to improve services, reduce spending and generate additional revenue. The Revenue Department, for example, used $10 million in Productivity Bank loans to modernize and integrate its internal tax collection systems, including one $500,000 application that generated $9 million all by itself by identifying and withholding wage taxes from individuals who work in the city but live in surrounding suburbs.
In law enforcement, the Productivity Bank invested more than $30 million in IT projects such as mobile data terminals to speed up police response time; photo imaging and fingerprint scanning; and a prisoner tracking system that uses bar codes and photo wristbands.
Joe Connovitch, president of the National Association of State Information Resource Executives and director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Automated Technology Management, says cities are starting to look beyond their traditional "stovepipe" information systems towards Philadelphia for "John Carrow-type possibilities" across the entire enterprise of municipal administration. "They're looking for people who understand how the breadth and depth of technology can be used to improve government service," says Connovitch. "It takes a guy like John Carrow to put it all together."
— Marilyn J. Cohodas
Photo by Steven M. Falk