Detroit Finance System Sputters after Overhaul

By Edward Cone 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?

In 1997, the City of Detroit announced a plan to revamp its financial software with a three-year, $47.9 million project called the Detroit Resource Management System, or DRMS, commonly referred to as Dreams. It should have been called "nightmares."

ZIFFDOWNLOAD id="1457" title="p62-65">PDF DownloadThe initial plan called for the integration of 43 departments and 22 computer systems onto a single system that would run financial, human resources, and payroll software from Oracle Corp. Five years and more than $130 million later, DRMS has delivered only the financial applications, and the city has not begun to implement the HR and payroll applications that were supposed to be the project's big payoff.

To be sure, the nation's seventh-largest city has reaped some benefits from the project. It now has functional, modern financial software and a new network of computers to support it. "DRMS is not a boondoggle, it's just a very high-cost system that still has deficiencies," says Joe Harris, auditor general of the city of Detroit and a longtime critic of the project.

Detroit's program fell short for several reasons. For starters, the scope of the project was beyond what could reasonably have been accomplished with the resources allotted. Also, the bureaucracy of the city was resistant to change, forcing the software to be adapted to old business processes instead of the other way around.

Turf wars prevented useful feedback and criticism from reaching the right parties, and training costs for city workers were grievously underestimated. Meanwhile, lead integrator IBM Global Services (in the midst of the Y2K crunch and overheated dot-com economy) was having trouble staffing the project with competent workers, and Oracle's software—the same used by corporations—couldn't handle all of the arcana of municipal finance.

Some of the particular problems were specific to Detroit, or to public projects. But in its broad outline, the DRMS fiasco could have taken place in a corporate environment as easily as a public one.

This article was originally published on 2002-08-06
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.
eWeek eWeek

Have the latest technology news and resources emailed to you everyday.