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Palm Coast Tuesday, Jun. 30, 2020 1 week ago

City of Palm Coast spends $70,000 on tech research, but results were never shared publicly

Miscommunication led to a staff-prepared evaluation being shelved, City Manager Matt Morton said.
by: Brian McMillan Executive Editor

After spending more than $70,000 on technology consulting services with Gartner in 2018, the results were never shared in a public meeting. City Councilman Jack Howell called the situation a “debacle.”

Some of the results of Gartner’s research were prepared in a 30-slide PowerPoint by the city’s Information Technology staff in July 2019, a project that took 30 hours of staff time. City Manager Matt Morton said he was not aware of the PowerPoint at the time and that, moreover, he did not trust Gartner’s research.

When told of the PowerPoint in separate interviews with the Palm Coast Observer, Howell, along with Mayor Milissa Holland, City Councilman Nick Klufas and City Councilman Bob Cuff, agreed that the research should be shared publicly.

“Absolutely,” Holland said.

“This is troubling,” Cuff added.

Among the views revealed by Gartner in a September 2019 email was that it was risky and costly for the city to pursue widely replacing its software. Like Morton, Klufas was skeptical of Gartner, saying the company didn’t acknowledge that the cloud is the way of the future in technology.


Why the contract?

For years, the City Council has had a goal to modernize and streamline its software throughout the city. Staff members have been frustrated with Tyler Technologies, one of the main providers.

So, on Dec. 18, 2018, the City Council voted 5-0 to pay $71,471 to Gartner, a company that city staff called a “global leader in research” for information technology.

Gartner was tasked to “assist with development of a comprehensive IT Strategic Plan,” according to the staff report.


Where’s the report?

City staff began to work with Gartner. On Feb. 21, 2019, then-IT Director Chuck Burkhart reported to then-Interim City Manager Beau Falgout: “We are actively working with Gartner to create a Comprehensive IT Strategy which will include future software recommendations.”

Mayor Milissa Holland indicated at a May 28, 2019, City Council workshop that she was eager to receive the “Gartner Report.” “Can somebody answer why we don’t have the Gartner Report that was promised to us by March?” she asked.

Morton told her that the Gartner Report was expected on June 20, 2019.

“My level of frustration on this issue is very high,” she responded. “Because what was promised to this council has not been delivered. It has not been delivered to me. I don’t get a clear answer on why it’s not delivered, other than someone didn’t do their job.”

Burkhart was asked to resign.

Morton wanted to get a refund from Gartner but was told he couldn’t because the money was paid up front.

"I was very upset that we had spent $71,000 and had nothing to show for it."


Doug Akins was then promoted to IT director, and he discovered that Gartner was not intending to create a report at all. The contract was for research and advice only; staff would have to create the report.

So Akins got to work. He and another staff member, Craig Ledbetter, spent about 30 hours over the next month to prepare a PowerPoint, with the idea that it would eventually be presented to City Council. But it never was.

Morton was frustrated with the miscommunications about what Gartner was going to produce, and he said he was never told staff had prepared a PowerPoint. Regardless, he said, it wasn’t really a “Gartner Report,” it was just a “staff evaluation.” “It wasn’t presented as a product,” he said.


What did Gartner say?

Akins continued to be in touch with Gartner in subsequent months, despite his PowerPoint being shelved.

Gartner’s stance was that even though the city might prefer systems that are more modern than Tyler, new systems don’t provide enough of a return on investment to justify millions of dollars in replacement costs.

The city provided to the Palm Coast Observer an email between Akins and Gartner’s Jeff Kaplan in September 2019; it shows some concern from Gartner that the city has “decided to pursue replacement … in spite of the apparent cost and risk.”

Gartner's analyst said replacing city software wholesale “would cost the city millions of dollars and is highly risky; potentially bringing down numerous critical city systems if not properly implemented by a team with proper experience and prior expertise.”

Kaplan said replacing city software wholesale “would cost the city millions of dollars and is highly risky; potentially bringing down numerous critical city systems if not properly implemented by a team with proper experience and prior expertise.”

He added: “City leadership seems to have a bias towards a cloud-based system, based on popular market trends.”

Kaplan provided further research to Akins and concluded his email this way: “Many are prone to jumping to product selection. We recommend the city understand the strategy, scope, and cost before engaging in product selection. Leaping too quickly can be a source of failure.”


What is Gartner’s reputation?

The email wasn't reviewed by city leadership; regardless, however, Morton wasn’t interested in Gartner’s views.

Morton told the Palm Coast Observer on June 30 that he had never heard of Gartner before he was hired by the city, but he eventually learned that Gartner favors legacy software solutions like Tyler, rather than exploring what the city wanted to explore.

“Gartner only recommends software that’s on their list, in their stable,” Morton said in one interview.

Unlike other City Council members, Nick Klufas said he was briefed on Gartner in a one-on-one meeting with city staff because he asked for details. (Klufas is a software engineer by trade, while Howell and Cuff are, by their own admission, not tech experts.)

Klufas said in an interview with the Palm Coast Observer that he, too, was skeptical of Gartner.

Gartner boasts that it provides independent research and is a global leader for software consulting. But a 2017 article by Shawn Snapp on is just one example that says Gartner is not independent. Snapp says the company takes “billions in revenue from software vendors. … Vendors know that Gartner is 'pay to play.'”

Others in the tech world do trust Gartner. For example, David Rossiter, who runs the analyst relations division at Harvard, says Gartner is independent and valuable. (Akins said he did not doubt Gartner's independence, either.)

After reading Kaplan’s email to Akins, Klufas was even more convinced that Gartner’s research was skewed toward the status quo rather than accomplishing the city’s objective of modernizing its fragmented software.

Kaplan wrote that the city had a “bias towards a cloud-based system, based on popular market trends.”

The cloud, though, is the future of software, Klufas said. It’s a market trend for a reason, and Gartner is not providing a good service if it doesn’t appreciate that, he indicated.

“From a technology standpoint, I disagree wholeheartedly with that email,” he said.


Why not share the research?

Still, Klufas said, if he was told about Gartner in a one-on-one meeting, he would expect that the other council members would be, too.

When asked whether he thought Gartner’s research should have been shared in a public meeting, Howell responded, “Without a doubt, especially when you’re going to spend that much money on a contract.”

City Council priorities, such as the modernization of software, should always be discussed in public meetings, Howell said.

“When City Council spends money, City Council is also responsible to say whether it’s worth it or not,” he added. “ … My position is that I want this whole debacle brought before the City Council for a detailed explanation to the public.”

He said Morton told him the staff would provide an update in the next month or two on the progress.

Councilman Bob Cuff said he did not remember seeing any results from Gartner one-on-one or in a public meeting, either. That was surprising, considering how much money the city spent.

“If our staff thought the conclusions were worth following up, or needed more study, I would hope they would explain why,” Cuff said.

Holland said she would like to see a staff presentation on Gartner’s research. She is interested in anything that will further the City Council’s goal of improving its citywide patchwork of software.

“This has been an ongoing source of frustration for three years now,” she said.

Brian McMillan has been editor of the Palm Coast Observer since it began in 2010. He was named the Journalist of the Year for weekly newspapers in North America by the Local Media Association in 2012. He lives in Palm Coast with his wife and five children. Email...

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