Special Reports

Council urges independent assessment on computer system

Tacoma’s multimillion-dollar computer system needs an independent assessment to see whether the city’s getting its money’s worth, where there are problems and how best to address them, a City Council committee decided Wednesday.

The four-member Government Performance and Finance Committee asked Utilities Director Mark Crisson and computer systems director Dave Otto to develop a “scope of work” for the assessment and return to them next month.

Essentially, committee members want a blueprint for delving into the SAP computer system to see where it works, where it might need improvement and how the city can maximize its return on the investment.

If they like what they see, they’ll recommend the full council seek a consultant who can do the work.

Crisson said he didn’t know how much such an assessment might cost, but he and Otto agreed it’s needed to help get the most from the citywide system that went live a year ago.

A return on investment study – paid for by SAP and conducted by the outside firm of Peppers & Rogers – concluded a few months ago that Tacoma could break even on its investment in 8


years and see a 1 percent return on its money in 10 years. But several factors brought managers, as well as Councilwoman Julie Anderson, to conclude an independent performance audit is needed.

Among them, Crisson said, are these:

• City leaders are struggling to close a $29.6 million gap between expected general fund revenues and expenses during the 2005-2006 budget years, but it’s difficult to make cuts in the information systems department because its mission “is so critical.”

• Although “90 percent of the system is working fine,” some areas need to be looked at.

• Intense media reporting of the system’s failings have created misperceptions among the public about the reliability of the system and the wisdom of the city’s investment.

Anderson, however, was more critical. She’s grown weary of being surprised when the council or the utility board are asked to approve new consultant contracts for more work on the system and bigger budgets for its maintenance, she said.

“A project of this size is bound to have areas of risk,” she said. “I want a third set of eyes outside of City Hall to look for vulnerabilities that we might not be aware of.”

Councilman Kevin Phelps wondered whether it was too early to do a comprehensive quality assessment on a system that’s still getting its bugs worked out, suggesting it might be better to wait.

“To me it would be like doing a performance audit on a car that isn’t built yet,” he said.

“Kevin, even in a car factory, quality assurance and risk management is something that happens independently and concurrently with the design phase,” Anderson replied. “It’s extremely important to get this done quickly.”

At Phelps’ suggestion, however, the committee agreed it would be wise to get the scope of work prepared first, then look for a consultant to do the assessment.