Philly software project to implement lobbyist disclosure law crashes

    UPDATED: Noon, Thursday, May 10th.

    After paying $227,000 to a national consulting firm, the city of Philadelphia has decided to scrap a year-long project to develop software to implement the city’s first-ever lobbyists’ disclosure law, which City Council passed in 2010.

    As a result, lobbyists who register under the law and clients who submit quarterly reports showing their spending will make those filings on paper for now, and the City of Philadelphia Board of Ethics will have to figure out a way to post the information on the city website.

    It’s back to square one on developing the software that was supposed to get the data from filers, let the ethics board manage it, and make a simple, searchable data base available on the Web.

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    Perficient, Inc., which describes itself as “a leading technology and management consulting firm,” was engaged to develop the software. Ethics board executive director Shane Creamer said there were problems with Perficient’s work from the beginning.

    “But we held out hope for a long time that we would ultimately get something that was workable, not perfect, but something we could continue to improve upon,” Creamer said.

    But with a nearly a quarter million bucks down the drain and little prospect of getting anything workable, the city recently pulled the plug on the project.

    “It became apparent that we weren’t going to get a product that was functional or usable on the most basic level,” Creamer said. “And that was disappointing, after having gone through that process for the better part of a year now.”

    The city is exploring its options for adapting software from another city, such as New York; hiring a firm to build a new system; or having the city’s own geeks do the job in-house. And they’re exploring their legal options on getting their money back from Perficient.

    How does a seemingly straightforward information technology project like this crash and burn in 2012?

    City Councilman Bill Green raised the question in an April 10 budget hearing at which the lobbyists software debacle came up.

    “This is a basic form of information,” Green said. “It could be on Google Forms. I mean, it is not a complicated undertaking, I don’t believe, to get data in fields and have it made available on the Internet for public consumption,” Green said.

    The city’s technology chief, Adel Ebeid didn’t return my call, but he did tell Green in the hearing that “there is some complexity in it with regard to work flow and credentialing. So, it is not all straight forward.”

    UPDATE: I connected Thursday with Ebeid, who said Perficient, Inc. was selected to design the lobbyists’ sofware and do other web site work for the city before he arrived last fall.

    “I’ve never heard of the company, and I’ve dealt with a lot of companies in the past,” Ebeid said. “It’s clear to me that they under-estimated the lobbyists system.”

    Ebeid said in November Perficient developed a product that was so deficient they were asked to start over. What they came back with failed so many tests that the he and the Ethics Board agreed they had to pull the plug.

    “It was clear we were not getting best effort,” he said. “It wasn’t a priority for the company.”

    I asked how Perficient peformed on the other work they were contracted for. He gave them “a solid C” and said the stuff they designed is in use.

    He couldn’t really explain why the company had been chosen since he wasn’t around, so I asked to see the contract and other paperwork and talk to someone involved in the selection. I’ll let you know what I find.

    I also wondered about Bill Green’s question: Is this really that complicated? Could you hire a van-full of 29 year-old geeks and get this done in a few weekends?

    Ebeid, who’s done a lot of big IT projects over the years, said essentially that the lobbyists software wasn’t a moon shot, but it wasn’t that simple either. On a complexity scale of one to 10, he’d rate it a three or four.

    What does the company have to say?

    I called the number for Perficient’s Philadelphia-area office, and got a recording inviting me to dial my party’s four-digit extension, or use a dial-by-name directory. There was no option to reach anybody if you didn’t have a name. Hitting zero restarted the original recording. What a surprise that a company like that would struggle to get a software project done.

    I did reach Liz Drazen, Perficient’s national public relations manager, who sent the following statement:

    “Unfortunately, we cannot discuss details specific to a particular client or engagement. However, Perficient remains dedicated to serving our clients and helping them achieve their business objectives through the use of innovative technology solutions. We have been one of the fastest-growing consulting firms in the country for more than a decade in part because of our high client satisfaction rates. Perficient strives to be a strong economic contributor to the local Philadelphia community, and we remain committed to working with all of our clients to resolve issues when they arise.”

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