Raleigh’s big, invisible change

Print More

There has been a massive change in the city of Raleigh in the past two years.  It’s not something many residents have noticed.

Since 2008, the city’s operations have undergone a huge shift — from using separate software and computer systems in each department to merging everything into an enterprise resource planning (ERP) program. The programs, Oracle and PeopleSoft, handle everything from the city’s billing and payroll and human resources to budgeting and accounting.

What began as an upgrade to the city’s financial systems has turned into the biggest project the city has ever undergone, making every aspect of the city’s operations more efficient.

And it’s not done. The massive rollout will continue for a few more years, with the “wow” systems still to come.

The benefits

In September 2006, the city asked the Government Finance Officers Association Consulting Center to conduct a needs assessment. Their suggestion: an ERP. The city purchased the Oracle/PeopleSoft ERP in 2008.

Raleigh’s old computer systems could not share information; there was no integration among departments. The utility billing system, which also includes surrounding towns such as Garner and Wendell, was beginning to reach its limits.

A corporate environment is one business, but the city has many businesses: waste, fire, police, water and more. The new system integrated departments and standardized city processes.

And, there used to be a lot more paper.

“In the past, everything was such a manual effort. When you hire someone, there’s a piece of paper to go to about 10 different places to make sure they had access to the benefits or retirement or some department knew about them,” said Jeannette Carroll , payroll manager. “The elimination of the manual effort has just been huge. The notifications automatically go out now via email.”

Chris Conner, senior business process analyst for the Personnel Department, said it was there same for employees — every tiny employee change required a form to be filled out.

Now, employees can login to update their personal information, sign up for direct deposit, view paystubs, submit leave requests and view W2 forms.

“It’s right there at their fingertips,” Conner said. “It takes a lot of that paper-driven aspect out of it.”

Assistant Deputy Clerk Ralph Puccini III works in his office Monday. Although the ERP system is saving high stacks of paper for many departments, it does not mean fewer pages in the Clerk’s office. Photo by Jennifer Wig.

Welcome to the 20th century

Indeed, Raleigh was 10 years behind the curve in implementing this system, said Gail Roper, Raleigh’s chief information officer. Most of corporate America moved to these systems years ago. The state of North Carolina and many other cities, including Durham, use an ERP system.

“Close to 90 percent of municipalities that I have dealt with have already done this,” said Roper, who first helped Kansas City implement an ERP in 1999. “These were the first dramatic technology initiatives that the city of Raleigh has ever embarked on.”

The original timeline for the project was 18 months, which was “a little aggressive,” said Roper, who completed an ERP changeover in Austin, TX before moving to Raleigh. That has been extended by a few more years as other aspects of the massive system have yet to be implemented.

Costs vs. savings

In 2008, the city borrowed $30 million to pay for the new software and two consulting firms, CherryRoad Technologies and Meridian Consulting, to implement it and train staff. That money also paid for replacement employees who filled in while a team of city employees trained on the ERP system.

According to documents provided by the city, $27.5 million has been spent thus far.

The Government Finance Officers Association called that “outstanding pricing.”

But with modules still to be implemented, Raleigh Chief Financial Officer Perry James says more money will have to be found. He could not estimate how much more was needed.

James requested an extra $500,000 from the city council Jan. 18 to pay for added system security. He said while some security accompanied the initial software, another layer is needed to make sure employee access permissions can be granted and removed as needed. He promised to give the council more details when they put together the request for proposal.

Councilwoman Nancy McFarlane questioned the expense, just as she did in July 2009 when the city asked for an extra $282,000 for the ERP project.

“When we first voted for it, it seemed expensive at the time, but I voted for it because the city manager assured us that this was a charge that was going to cover everything,” she said. “Now they want another $500,000 for something I think should have been part of that system.”

In addition, the city pays licensing and maintenance fees each year for the system. Initial estimates put that cost at as much as $68 million per year. City officials said that is an “old figure,” but could not produce an up-to-date number.  Some of that cost would be paid for out of the city’s technology fund.
According to the IT department, retiring the old systems will save $443,218 annually.

The hurdles

Any big system change means some computer glitches. During the process, IT workers twice encountered problems switching data over from the old systems to the new one. More than 100 staff members spent months or, in some cases, years training on the new system.

But the biggest hurdle came from employees, long used to the old systems and resistant to learn something new.

“[The ERP] changed their jobs just 180 degrees. It’s a better level of sophistication,” said David Erwin who works in the city’s finance department. “It was very overwhelming at first.”

There is a huge learning curve for those unfamiliar with computers and newer technology, Roper said. The city had to fill in the gaps using many different training approaches.

“All of the things these folks have been doing for the last 20 years have changed dramatically for them,” she said. “We’re finding that some people aren’t doing real well, but some people are doing great.”

“Do people like it? The question there is: do people like change?”

In addition to the normal bumps along the way, Raleigh lost some critical staff during the rollout, including the treasurer and deputy CEO.

“You have to have these key persons in place when you’re trying to implement those modules,” Roper said.

Another part of the challenge was dealing with so many departments, who all operate differently.

“The larger we become and the more widespread we become, geographically, it becomes difficult to take something you’ve worked with … and try to articulate it back to the masses and get their ownership of it,” Carroll said.

But after the initial resistance, most of the city’s 4,000 full-time employees are coming around, she said.

“When we rolled this out, our ambition was that the employee was going to be responsible for him or herself. And we’ve pretty much done that on the full-time employee population,” Carroll said. “They started telling us what we need to do instead of us telling them. Now they’re embracing that and asking for more.”

Overall Roper would give the system an A+ “if I had to grade it.”

Roper said the city has never missed payroll since that part of the system rolled out in July 2009. What now remains is the normal tweaks of overhauling such a comprehensive program.

“The ERP system in itself needs some work,” said Roper, indicating she is clearing up programming issues. “I don’t really believe that it’s really anything that’s going to cripple the city. I just believe that Raleigh held on to its legacy systems a little too long. When you do, it’s more of a challenge for people to acclimate to the new technology. But it’s really coming around.”

The best is yet to come

Or at least, that’s what the financial department heads say. Residents may not have seen much change so far, but the aspects of the program that are coming will make life easier for them, city CFO James said.

Residents have already seen changes in their water bill, now available for viewing and payment online.  Bills are also issued monthly, instead of every other month.

“[The other programs] will be more of the ‘wow’ factor for departments who will be see even greater effectiveness in what they can do,” he said.

Utility Billing Manager Susan Decker said there is still plenty of behind-the-scenes work that will make her department more efficient. But for residents, the ‘wow’ will be the availability of more services online, such as starting or stopping water service, online scheduling of services and making payment arrangements if the current due date doesn’t suit.

The new modules mean the city’s vendors and suppliers will be able to view invoices online.

And in Personnel, the “heavy-hitters,” as Conner calls them, will enable job applicants to submit online applications, including employees applying for internal openings. Personnel staff will be able to narrow the field of applicants based on qualifications with just a few clicks, and management will conduct performance evaluations online.

“Here we are the capital city; we should be the beacon in the night but we’re still at the point where applicants have to fill out a hard copy form and fax it or drop it by,” Conner said. “That’s something we need to catch up with the rest of the world.”

Conner said the delay in implementing the final modules has actually been beneficial, allowing the first wave of change to become familiar and stabilize before making more changes.

Meanwhile, the city is still working on a timeline for the final modules, but it will likely take a few years to complete.

“Our number one goal in implementing this system was to improve the services to our internal customers but mostly to our citizens,” said Jeanne Honeycutt, financial systems administrator. “I think we have achieved that and will achieve it more as we’re more able to add the e-applications for our vendors and suppliers.”

James agrees. The new ERP will ensure the city stays current, and the system will grow and change as the city does.

“We’re on the cusp of being able to offer the services that people expect. People expect to have an app on their iPhone where they can call up the city and report a pothole,” he said. “So that’s what this system has given us, is that opportunity to better serve our customer and to stay on top of or in front of the technology curve.”

CORRECTION APPENDED: The caption for the photo accompanying this story originally misspelled Ralph Puccini’s name. We regret the error and the correction has been appended.

Comments are closed.