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Big Glitch

The city auditor says mismanagement plagues the rollout of an $18 million computer system, and an administrator fires back.

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The introduction of an $18 million computer system intended to streamline Richmond’s finances is -- to put it mildly -- not going well, according to reports on the ground and a high-level audit released this week.

In the city’s fire department, the system hasn’t been fully implemented because it never worked, union president Keith Andes says. During the initial roll out, some employees on long-term sick leave reported receiving pay checks for as little as six hours.

In another case, companies contracted to service the city’s fleet of cars, trucks and machinery refused to return vehicles because system glitches kept them from being paid for the work. The delay took five city dump trucks, among other vehicles, out of commission for two months, according to a city employee familiar with the issue.

And across city departments, administrators are still trying to sort out an error that’s led to the inaccurate calculation of leave time for employees.

The system, known as RAPIDS, “touches practically every department and agency,” City Auditor Umesh Dalal said Monday during a meeting of the city’s audit committee.

“Without proper functioning of this system, the city may not be able to pay bills, may not be able to process payroll or purchases or maintain its corporate accounts. Failure in this area is -- it’s not acceptable.”

City administrators disagreed with the audit’s findings and rejected every suggestion offered for improvement, but Dalal’s office says the system's implementation has been plagued by poor management on the part of the administration, inadequate testing prior to its rollout, and the absence of a contingency plan should the system stop working altogether.

The audit also reported that city employees expected to use the system said they didn’t think they were adequately prepared, while the project’s managers didn’t do enough to address concerns about the lack of training.

On top of that, Dalal said his office encountered “significant resistance” while it conducted the audit, and had issues obtaining cooperation, access to employees and data. As a result, he says the audit, initially set to begin in 2011, was delayed multiple times.

Dalal’s office issued seven recommendations to improve management of the system and address the issues raised in the report.

Sharon Judkins, the deputy chief administrative officer for finance and administration, rejected all seven recommendations as unnecessary at the meeting. She disputed the findings and said that the report was “plagued with inaccuracies.”

She and her fellow administrators had plans and procedures in place for “just about everything,” she said, but that it was rare for such large projects not to experience some issues.

“We had a plan for testing, we had a plan for change management, we had a plan for just about everything,” she said. “If everything in the plan goes as we intended it … then I’ll show you the six numbers for the lottery coming tomorrow -- which is very big, by the way.

“The auditor picked 23 people who obviously said what he wanted them to say, and every time he had a question, those were the exact same people he went back to. … All I’m saying is look at the methodology with which this report was developed and you can see it’s all over the cliff.”

Dalal’s office said the problems can be overcome and system should not be considered a total loss. But they also suggested the administration has a poor track record of learning from its mistakes.

“I know this came across as harsh,” auditor Bob Baker said. “The city is not going to fall apart, but there are large initiatives that loom on the horizon and I’d be very leery about jumping into them before we get our house in order.”

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