Special Reports

City took ‘success story’ on road but left reality at home

City officials have tried hard to portray Tacoma’s new computer system as a success – and not just in Tacoma.

They also took the message on the road.

Almost from the moment the system was turned on, city officials – led by computer project manager Karen Larkin – worked the phones and traveled to conventions around the country touting the success of the project, e-mails and city records show.

Larkin flew to New Orleans, Miami, Denver and Atlanta at a taxpayer expense of $4,060, city travel records show.

“I don’t see the issue,” said Tacoma Public Utilities Director Mark Crisson.

Larkin defends the trips as beneficial to the city. And after all of the research Tacoma officials conducted before selecting a computer system, she believes city officials have a responsibility to share information with other governments contemplating such purchases.

The selling of the system began even before the city turned on the SAP software in October and November 2003. There were interviews and quotes in national publications aimed at government workers. In September, Tacoma officials shared their knowledge with officials from the San Antonio Water System.

In January, Larkin e-mailed back and forth with Thomas Bettes of SAP about a telephone presentation she’d agreed to make to the state of New Mexico, a prospective client of the software giant. Bettes told Larkin about the concerns of New Mexico officials and said, “Anything you can say to alleviate fears ... would be wonderful.”

A few days after the conversation with New Mexico officials, Larkin e-mailed Bettes asking what he thought.

“Was the information on target for what they were hoping to learn?” she asked. “Did it address the ‘issues and concerns’ they had with SAP? How would you have me modify it if we did this again?”

In February, Larkin sent a copy of an upbeat presentation titled “Unleashing the Intrinsic Value of Your Organization” to SAP vice president Klaus Heimann. In the accompanying letter, she said she made the presentation to some other Washington state government agencies interested in SAP and spoke to officials in New Mexico, Portland, San Antonio and San Jose, Calif., about Tacoma’s relationship with SAP.

But Larkin wasn’t on the road alone.

There were some bumps in the process, customer care solution manager Sue Dalton admitted during her presentation to the Metering America conference in San Diego last March. But she told the conference Tacoma did its homework, picked a winning partner and succeeded with strong leadership, a committed work force, an adequate budget, sufficient resources, training and quality control.

Business process manager Karen Walling went to the Americas’ SAP Users Group conference in Atlanta in April.

Heather Pennington of Tacoma Water and Shrikant Nistane of TUI made a joint presentation on Tacoma’s experience using SAP’s work management systems at a trade conference in Bellevue last May.

At least one city official had qualms about Larkin telling the Tacoma “success story” at the same time city employees struggled to make the new system work.

In a March 29 e-mail to Larkin and SAP senior account executive Thomas Schwab, TPU customer service manager Bill Schatz warned that unless Larkin and SAP executives gave a true picture of Tacoma’s troubles with the budget billing system they “could set an unrealistic expectation when potential buyers either call us or come to visit Tacoma to see what we’ve done.”

If they weren’t truthful, Schatz said, “someone’s reputation could be negatively impacted, either Karen’s, SAP’s or the City of Tacoma’s.”

Schwab replied he thought a number of the city’s problems could be cured with “strong leadership and support,” a theme that would emerge as project leaders looked to employees as the source of many of the city’s computer struggles.

In May, Larkin traveled to New Orleans to speak at SAPPHIRE, a large SAP-sponsored customer conference.

She wasn’t paid for the appearance, but she did earn SAP credits for the City of Tacoma. The credits can be used for things like training for city employees or free consulting.

In addition, Larkin and the city received an even bigger intangible benefit, city and SAP officials say: access to other SAP users.

It’s this kind of chance to compare notes that draws people to SAPPHIRE, said Bill Wohl, vice president of public relations for SAP. Attendees pay $2,500, primarily for the opportunity to receive some “peer-to-peer counseling,” he said.

“Status as a speaker gives more access to other speakers,” Wohl said.

SAP doesn’t participate in the discussions and doesn’t dictate what guest speakers say, Wohl said.

“We’re not sitting at the table,” he said. “That’s what makes them so valuable.”

But he admitted that SAP doesn’t “believe a customer will come all the way to our conference and trash SAP. They will talk about their experience, including negatives.”

Judging by a PowerPoint outline of Larkin’s presentation, made along with TUI Consulting vice president Todd Crandall, the majority of time was spent discussing the history of Tacoma’s computer project, why SAP was selected and what the city expected to gain from the new system.

It includes a reference to some difficulties the city encountered, but doesn’t detail utility billing problems, employee complaints about needing more time to do their jobs, or the follow-up contracts with TUI Consulting to fix problems and look for efficiencies.

The case of Richmond, Calif., demonstrates how such user conferences don’t always show the complete picture.

A presentation the Richmond city manager gave during a SAPPHIRE conference in 2002 came under criticism last summer when the East Bay Express newspaper reported on problems with that city’s SAP software.

The article documented that SAP paid to fly then-City Manager Isiah Turner to Orlando to deliver a presentation called “City of Richmond, A Showcase Installation: A True Story, With a Happy Ending.”

“But four years and about $4.5 million into the scheduled seven-year transition, the story is neither complete nor looking particularly happy,” according to the Express. “With Richmond now in the midst of a widely publicized financial crisis, some city leaders are now pointing fingers at SAP’s wares as a costly failure. Frustrated department heads complain that the fancy new system – originally designed to meet the needs of the business world – doesn’t work and should be upgraded or replaced.

“Instead of making things run more efficiently, at least two department heads say, the system has actually created extra work.”

Larkin’s relationship with SAP didn’t end with her presentation at the SAPPHIRE conference.

In September, she participated in a “Webcast” produced by SAP. The program resembled a television “infomercial.”

Like the SAPPHIRE presentation, Larkin’s appearance provided background information about why Tacoma selected SAP software and what it hoped to gain from the new computer system. And like the SAPPHIRE presentation, the Webcast made only a brief mention of the problems Tacoma encountered.

Utility customers experienced a “little bit longer wait time,” Larkin said, adding that Tacoma was “getting over the hump now.”

Jason Hagey: 253-597-8542


Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659