Philly CIO: Troubled Water Billing System Can Work

Philly CIO: Troubled Water Billing System Can Work

Oracle to assist in the two-year-delayed deployment of Philadelphia's 'Project Ocean' water billing system.

After three years of work and $US18 million spent, Philadelphia still has not deployed a water billing system for its half-million customers and is now working with Oracle Corp. -- the major vendor behind the project -- to get it back on track.

The billing system, Project Ocean, was designed in 2003 to replace a 30-year-old custom-built operation that relies on outdated technologies and fails to collect all the revenues it should, according to city officials and records. It has taken two years longer than planned and more than twice as much money as initially projected.

The effort stumbled because of technical complexity, changes in administrators overseeing the rollout and Oracle's inexperience building such a system, according to critics and Philadelphia CIO Dianah Neff. The current talks with Oracle are taking place even as Neff prepares to leave her job Sept. 8 -- before the negotiations are expected to be done.

Neff, who has pushed Philadelphia's municipal WiFi effort and is about to start a WiFi-focused consulting job in another city, said Project Ocean is on hold until the Mayor's Office of Information Services (MOIS) and other city officials can reach "settlement that will put the project back on track." She said the project could be modified or replaced by a "workable solution" can be put in place to protect the city's investment "and deliver a modern utility and collection system within 18 months."

An Oracle spokeswoman said only that the implementation is "still in progress and Oracle believes that the work performed to date conforms with the current agreement." She said the vendor will deliver on its obligations to complete the project.

City Controller Alan Butkovitz said his office is midway into a review of what happened with Oracle and Project Ocean, but it is too soon to specualte on what went wrong. Meanwhile, "anything the city administration does to make sure there's a workable product for its money is commendable and we wouldn't get in the way of that," he said.

One Project Ocean critic, former City Water Commissioner Kumar Kishinchand, said he never felt the project would work when it was discussed in 2002 and 2003. He left the commission in 2004 after 12 years.

"One reason is that they picked a company that had never done a water billing system," Kishinchand said yesterday. "Oracle had only done viable customer service systems with a small portion for billing purposes. Municipal billing systems tend to be tremendously complex."

The off-the-shelf components of such systems have to be heavily modified, a complex and time-consuming effort, he said.

He also argued that project managers "did not have much to lose if it failed," since the city's Finance Department would be in charge -- not the Water Department, which is the principal operator and user of the system. "The city's Water Department could have managed to tweak it to get it to work, because they had a compelling interest to get it to work."

He also said Neff and MOIS wanted to take over the water billing system -- which brings in $300 million a year in revenues -- because it was "the most complex and biggest" IT system in government. "Most of what went wrong had to do with empire building, more than anything else," he said, accusing officials of putting all their eggs in one [Oracle] basket, without consulting the water department."

Neff said her office was involved in choosing the Oracle Enterprise Resource Planning E-Business suite for an array of city uses, including human resources, and said the Finance Department decided to make water billing its first application. Once that decision was made, MOIS was brought in to implement the move. "Hindsight is 20/20 and ERP is difficult anyway," Neff said.

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