In a story that most people probably didn’t pay attention to, given the daily tremors of our national political climate, the Inquirer reported a familiar account: The City of Philadelphia is far past deadline and vastly over budget on a number of technology upgrades that are costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

The story described the details of four city tech upgrades – from payroll systems to data-keeping software – that have gone more than $21 million over budget and several years past expected completion dates.

City Controller Alan Butkovitz warned city officials that these results were likely. In a letter quoted in the story, he wrote, “Philadelphia has a history of jumping into costly projects and failing its citizens when it comes to operating in the 21st century.”

Philadelphia is not unique in failing miserably to update its technology infrastructure. According to the story, a” Standish Group analysis of more than 1,200 multimillion-dollar government projects between 2012 and 2016 showed that only 13.6 percent were finished on time and on budget. Thirty percent completely failed.”

Why is it so common for government tech upgrades to fail?

Government is certainly ripe for tech upgrade problems for a lot of the reasons you’d expect: There’s often not a similar consequence for going over budget as there would be in a large private firm or small business. And governments are often not very good at hiring the best contractors or getting the best prices.

But there are a lot of things governments face that most of us should be able to empathize with. Buying good technology is difficult. There are many people in both government and private industry who don’t understand what technology can do or what it should do for them. Many businesses were built without computers. And now these business owners have to adapt to a world in which computers aren’t simply a time saving tool but a necessity.

We can point at government for doing a bad job, but lots of us are doing pretty bad jobs, too. There are many business owners among us without a proper, up-to-date website – something that’s hard to imagine nearly 25 years since Netscape Navigator, the first consumer web browser, was released.

When you don’t understand technology – and many of us don’t – it’s difficult to make good decisions. Many of us are lucky if we can pick a good smartphone or the right laptop for home use, never mind the best payroll software, database system or server hardware. And yes, experts can help, but for many of us, to paraphrase former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, we don’t know what we don’t know.

This isn’t to let government off the hook for not doing things better. Mayor Kenney made a smart move last year in appointing a chief information officer to work closely on technology acquisition – to make sure the city’s needs are better understood and that services purchased stay within budget.

It’s a new world in which we are expected to not only use technology but understand it. It’s the bare minimum requirement to make sure we’re not fleeced or worse, fail completely.

Pete Mazzaccaro

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