Portland, Oregon Payroll System Problems Said to Be Reminiscent of the Great Water Billing Fiasco of '02

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There was an article posted on OregonLive.com this week about the continuing problems the city of Portland, Oregon is having with its new $48 payroll and internal operations IT system that went live last June. According to the story, the $19 million over budget, 10-month late system is creating "inscrutable paychecks."

The Portland Police Association, for example, says that half of its members spend on average two hours every week trying to understand if they have been paid correctly. Other city workers' paychecks apparently have missing vacation time or child support payments incorrectly taken out.  Just last Christmas, 1,466 city workers were underpaid anywhere from $0.34 to $3,400.00 while some 134 were overpaid.

Nevertheless, city administrators say that the problems are just normal "teething problems" and state that, "There is a learning curve and anyone who has implemented a system this big knows it takes 18 months to stabilize, and we're only at six." As far as they are concerned, the project is a success.

I do wonder, though, whether an 18 month teething period was explicitly included in the current project plan.

However, what really struck me in the story was this line, "Talk to public employees in Portland and some liken the city's new payroll system to a computer fiasco worse than the great water billing mishap of 2002."

The "Great Water Billing Mishap of '02"?

Growing up in New England, one got used to hearing repeated (and soon to be boring) stories from your parents or grandparents about their experiences during the Great Flood of 1936, the Great Hurricane of '38,  as well as the Great Blizzards of '88 (1888 that is), or '78 or '87 (the latter two I experienced and which I bore my children to tears with stories about - hey, it's tradition!).

Now apparently, we have reached a milestone in the societal impacts of computing that people can now comparing current IT system problems to some other ones they experienced.

I supposed it will only be a matter of time before there are heated arguments over bragging rights regarding whether the IT failure you experienced was really as bad as the one I just went through. And we will no doubt soon begin boring our children with stories of the great IT failures or mishaps we have experienced in our lives.

For the curious, the "Great Water Billing Mishap of '02" in Portland involved the city's water billing system project that was contracted for in 1997 at a cost of $6 million and which was supposed to be operational by December 1998.

In February 2000, after missing numerous go live dates, and with staff warnings of significant defects in the billing software that still had not been fixed, Portland's Water Bureau executives decided to go live with it anyway. Billing problems immediately arose with 40,000 of the Bureau's 186,000  customers.

It takes several years (and another $10 million in direct costs and an estimated $20 -30 million in lost revenue due to faulty customer billing) before the system becomes semi-reliable in its operations. 

In January 2004, Portland decided to scrap the system and begin again (the city was at least able to get the contractor that developed the software to pay the city back $7 million).

You can also read about the development problems experienced with Portland's current payroll system in this 2008 story by Michael Krigsman over at ZDNET.com.

But having read the story, all I can say is that the problems described don't come close to the IT project problems I have encountered. I distinctly remember this one project in 1977 ... 

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