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Rollout of new utility billing system to be delayed up to six months

Friday, February 4, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

The city’s new utility billing system, which was originally approved by City Council almost two years ago, won’t be up and running by its projected go-live date. According to city officials, the Custom Care & Billing system will likely miss its expected April 4 arrival date by about six months.


At yesterday’s special called meeting of the Council’s Audit and Finance Committee, Assistant City Auditor Niki Raggi said the project is still in its Design/Build/Test phase. According to the project’s schedule, that phase was supposed to be completed by the end of October 2010. By this point in the process, the project was supposed to have been in the Acceptance phase and moving into the final Deployment phase.


Austin utility customers receive one monthly bill for electricity, water and wastewater, trash and recycling services, as well as drainage fees to fund watershed protection.


Raggi said the delay – which could result in late delivery, cost overruns, and reduced functionality – has been caused, at least in part, by the project lacking “key elements of project management best practices,” such as contingency and fallback planning and independent quality assurance assessments.


“Besides a month of cushion initially built in to the project schedule, we did not see evidence of formal contingency planning,” Raggi said. “And while Austin Energy can continue to rely on the current billing system, we could not identify formal and documented fallback planning.”


City auditors found that quality assurance testing had been done by a project manager and project team members, who, Raggi said, “may not be perceived as objective or independent.”


Austin Energy Deputy General Manager Kerry Overton told the committee that these issues could be blamed, in part, on communication problems between the technical team charged with putting the billing system in place and the decision-making body above them.


The technical team, he said, experienced problems in July and August of last year and went about putting remedies into place. “It was clear (by) November or December that those fixes weren’t going to be enough,” Overton said. As a result, the project’s Executive Steering Committee wasn’t even aware of any problems until November or December.


“Immediately upon seeing that there were some conditions that were causing the project to be delayed, the steering committee met in January and agreed that we need to take a good hard look at whether we could meet the April date,” Overton said.


Overton said a new revised timeline, with an end date of October 2011, would be sent to the Executive Steering Committee next week, with an additional recommendation that the committee consider the feasibility of finishing in July.


Council Member Bill Spelman asked Overton how Austin Energy is revising its communication channels to ensure that information can get from the technical team to the executive team more quickly.


“We’ve strengthened the project management team,” Overton answered. “We’ve moved to, instead of a monthly report within the business review team . .  a weekly report. And the Executive Steering Committee, which normally would have met every quarter, is now meeting every month.”


The new billing system, which was developed by software publisher Oracle, is designed to improve customer service by offering a larger menu of payment and use options.

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