Houston steers IT toward center

Houston's Technology Initiatives

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One of the first things Denny Piper did when he became Houston's chief information officer was consolidate the 14 e-mail systems the city had among its 19 departments.

"I didn't even know they had 14 different brands of e-mail," said Piper, who became the city's first CIO 19 months ago. In three months' time, the city government standardized on Microsoft Corp. Exchange Version 5.5 on 15,000 desktops, concurrently replacing 4,000 PCs to support the application. As a result, the city reduced the systems support staff from 22 full-time employees to five.

"They had all kinds of proposals on the table to do it in 24 months, 36 months," Piper said. "I came from the private sector, and I've learned in the short time I've been here is that if you don't deliver it quickly in short bursts of value...the more the project goes on, the more somebody will find a reason why that was a dumb thing to do."

Houston city government (www.cityofhouston.gov) has been remaking itself technologically with ambitious enterprisewide projects such as replacing its telephone system, closing the digital divide and modernizing core systems applications as well as revamping its Web site, streamlining the procurement process and promoting e-government applications.

Soon after Piper joined, the city resurrected a technology steering committee and mapped out a strategic IT plan. In 12 of the 19 city departments, chief technology officers were hired, reporting to their department heads and to Piper. The city, which spends about $100 million on IT, has gradually migrated functions that cross multiple departments to Piper's control.

For example, Piper said the city is in the process of deploying 25,000 new phones over the next 12 to 18 months.

"It's the largest deployment of IT telephone in the government space in the world," said Piper, who said the current system has 175 key systems and 27 private branch exchanges. When completed, he estimated the city would save about $6 million annually.

"So by doing that, we will drive, just by default, the organization to a centralized model," he said. "I found if you just try to centralize because it just sounds [good], you'll have trouble doing it, so we try to tie it to some project or deliverable."

In August 2001, Houston launched a 311 help line, replacing the more than 700 phone numbers people had to call to get service. "People never knew how to navigate," said Piper. "What 311 does is it brings all problems the city has to the surface. It doesn't mean the service is going to get delivered immediately, but what you can do is track and figure out where the bottlenecks are.

"There's a little pushback from the departments," he continued, "because you took somewhat an autonomous organization — this call-center organization — holding them accountable to deliver the service. They haven't had that before. That's a good thing from a citizen's perspective."

By delivering projects, Piper said he's building credibility among government workers, by exposing them to new technologies and ways of doing business, as well as elected officials, by showing them cost savings and improved efficiency from IT implementations.

"Whenever politics gets involved in anything, it's challenging because sometimes the right decision doesn't get made," he said. If that's the case, he champions an IT project to the city council and mayor "because the only driver in my mind is to deliver better service either for the citizens or the employees that use our services that IT delivers. That's my only lot in life."


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