More than Financials

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 2002-08-06 Print this article Print

The city of Detroit had a perfectly clear blueprint when it committed $48 million to an Oracle system a few years ago. Then how come it came out like this?

More than Financials

One thing is clear: Running DRMS involved a lot more for IBM than just an Oracle implementation—it meant putting in a network from scratch, including the first deployment of PCs for many Detroit offices. "This was not just a financials project," says David Natelson, a vice president in state and local applications in Oracle's government, education and healthcare division, who has been working with the DRMS steering committee as Detroit has been upgrading to the current 11i release of Oracle's financial software.

The city was using computer equipment from the early '70s, and the work processes used by its 17,000 employees were slow to change. City departments still relied on a green-screen mainframe system that could capture information but provided no intelligent functions. So changing the financial software meant changing everything from the tools people used to the comfortable routine of doing their jobs. Still, there was a belief DRMS would not require major reengineering.

"We were going to try to adapt an archaic system to modern-day software," says Harris. "It was like painting over rust." People ended up working both systems in parallel and generating just as much paper as ever. Says Bentley, "People were resistant to change. They were doing it the old way and the new way at the same time."

The adjustment to new technology and new ways of doing business led to a huge and costly bottleneck as Detroit struggled to train its workers. Training costs quickly ballooned to as much as five times the anticipated amount, putting DRMS over budget almost from the start. "There was a gigantic training curve," says Bentley. "We did an assessment and the numbers that came back were staggering. We had to train people on what a mouse was and how to use it. This was not 10 or 20 people, there were hundreds." Scheduling that amount of training was hard, and people could only learn so much so fast.

Harris says Oracle promised that it could accommodate a particular type of financial accounting used by cities called grants management, even though its software had no module for this kind of municipal accounting. Apparently, that claim wasn't entirely true then, and it isn't true now; one of the major remaining shortfalls on the financials side is that DRMS still cannot handle grants accounting.

Oracle's Natelson counters that charge by pointing out that the public sector represents Oracle's largest single vertical market, and adding that the company is now implementing a financials package for the city of Chicago. But some of Oracle's other public-sector jobs have not gone so well, either. Earlier this year, for example, an Oracle project for the state of California was shown to have cost more than twice its $41 million budget. The project was killed last month.

Without commenting specifically on Detroit, Natelson says that public-sector jobs depend on strong leadership and staffing. And a vendor with first-hand knowledge of the project, who insisted on anonymity, made the point more strongly: He said DRMS unraveled because it was run by Detroit's technology managers, not the financial users who were to be the system's ultimate beneficiaries. That all adds up to an indictment of Bentley but also of Nicole Fontayne-Mack, Detroit's former information technology director, who now holds a similar position in Florida's Broward County.

There is nothing oblique about the criticism Detroit auditor Harris levels at Fontayne-Mack. He recalls that Fontayne-Mack refused to distribute to her staff some proposals for fine-tuning the performance of IBM Global Services that were prepared by consulting firm KPMG. "They didn't use the information," Harris complains. "We gave them copies every month but they weren't distributed. KPMG let Nicole know how IBM was performing, but she did not accept it because it came from me. We would have saved a lot of money by putting IBM's feet to the fire."

Fontayne-Mack did not return several calls to her office in Florida. However, Bentley, who left the city for a private-sector position in 1999, defends his former boss, pointing out that KPMG may not have been an impartial critic of IBM, since it, too, bid on the DRMS project.

"We had the full support of [Detroit] Mayor Dennis Archer," Bentley adds. "We talked at a senior level every two weeks for a year. Executive management was very flexible and understanding as it set the strategy."

Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.

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