Tech shift: Kenney pulls staff from controversial Chief Information Officer

The moves come after articles that noted defections and publicly aired grievances from folks in the city’s tech and innovation office.

Philadelphia City Hall

Philadelphia City Hall

Wikimedia Commons

After a pair of high-profile reports questioned the leadership and retention of employees in the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology, the Kenney administration is moving the current two-person Open Data team and the seven people involved in transforming the city’s website to a new office under a different city administrator.

Now those people, who worked in the Office of Innovation and Technology, will work as the “Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation” and will report to the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer. That office is headed up by Rebecca Rhynhart, who also oversees a hodgepodge of disparate offices: Procurement, fleet management, performance management, records, HR and talent and public property.

A city spokesman denied the move had anything to do with a recently-published Philadelphia Magazine story titled “Jim Kenney’s War on Cool.” On April 21, Technically Philly also published a story about the Office of Innovation and Technology that questioned where it would go under new leadership.

Rhynhart said open data and Alpha project employees — the latter of whom are working on creating a new city website — were moved as part of the CAO’s overall goal of evaluating city systems and modernizing them. Once the Alpha site goes live and that team wraps up that project, they’ll then become “like an internal consulting group” similar to the federal government’s 18F.

“They’re focused on the user experience and moving from analog to digital forms,” Rhynart said about the current open data and Alpha teams. “It’s all tied into modernization.” She said the move will also allow the Office of Innovation and Technology “to focus on the core systems in telecommunications.”

The Office of Innovation and Technology has reportedly been tense since Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration took over and installed a new head of the office in Charlie Brennan, a former police officer who changed his title from Chief Innovation Officer to “Chief Information Officer.”

The Philadelphia Magazine story noted that three high-profile hires in the Office of Innovation and Technology left in Kenney’s first 100 days in office, and employees working on the city’s project grumbled that they have “been waylaid with more rudimentary tasks, and the overall vibe has turned ‘toxic.'”

“You have good people who feel they’re giving their all to a particular project and conversing all the time over Slack and email and working into the night and really pushing,” an employee who left told Philly Mag. “Then, conversely, you have people wondering where someone is because they’re not back from lunch at 1:30.”

Brennan also caused controversy in April during a City Council budget hearing when he described why the city has trouble filling vacancies in technical positions, saying it can’t compete with the perks of the private sector. Technically Philly summed it up:

“One city business, they have a nap room,” Brennan said. “A nap room wouldn’t go over well here in the city.”

He continued: “They have very flexible hours, they work from home. You know, things that the city would have a really hard time doing. … They offer things like free food, massages, things like that. We just can’t compete with that.”

A few giggles sounded across Council chambers. Some in the audience grinned, amused. Clarke looked incredulous. You could practically feel the eyerolls.

The Office of the Chief Administrative Officer was created by Kenney’s administration to improve how the city allocates resources and how it hires and evaluates employees and development. For the last several months, Rhynhart’s office has been reviewing city practices in an effort to modernize systems.

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