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‘Poor leadership’: Report blasts city’s IT department

More than four months after a scathing consultant’s report blasted city Information Technology Director Clifford Branch’s “leadership deficiencies,” he’s still on the city’s payroll, having been assigned to focus on a single project at the same salary as before.

The leaked consultant’s report pinpoints numerous concerns in the city’s Information Technology Department, and it traces many of the issues to Branch.

The report, prepared by Endurance IT Services and delivered to City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn in July, lists issues including lack of clear vision, a substandard IT infrastructure, personnel with overlapping responsibilities, no clear chain of command, inconsistent budgeting procedures, restrictive computer policies that hamper city employees in doing their jobs, numerous project management deficiencies and an inability to support the needs of the police and fire departments.

The report was never made public. It was obtained by the Suffolk News-Herald from a source with knowledge of the internal workings of the department, who leaked it when changes had not been made months after the report had been presented.

Branch still works for the city. Last week, he was temporarily reassigned to a project regarding regional communications during emergencies. Meanwhile, the city manager’s office is overseeing the IT department.

A city spokeswoman declined to comment on why Branch has been retained or to address information contained in the report but acknowledged aspects of the IT department have struggled in the past.

Branch, who said he has not seen the report, declined to comment on it when a reporter asked him about it during a visit to Suffolk Fire & Rescue headquarters, where his new position is located. Even in a second visit on Monday, after being offered the opportunity to view the News-Herald’s copy — which he also declined — Branch said he would not comment on the report’s content.

The report

Sources say the report was ordered after employees made complaints about various problems to the city’s human resources department. Upon interviewing the entire IT department, with the exception of one person who was unavailable, the consultants reported that “nearly all IT department members were currently unhappy, unsatisfied and actively seeking employment elsewhere.”

“It was determined that this is a direct reflection of the poor leadership provided by the current [chief information officer] and [assistant chief information officer],” the report continued. “In addition to the general dissatisfaction of the staff, there is also a general lack of vision, teamwork, communication, and skills development within the IT department.”

The chief information officer, the head of the department, is listed as Clifford Branch. The assistant is Regina Chandler, the wife of former Portsmouth City Manager Ken Chandler. Suffolk’s city website continues to list Branch in the leadership position, even after his recent reassignment.

Leadership is called the “single largest area of concern” discovered during the assessment. The criticism of Branch is blistering.

“The current CIO functions in a ‘boss’ capacity as opposed to a leader,” the report reads. “He does not empower his staff to make decisions or resolve obvious issues. This is evident by the fact that he promoted Ms. Chandler from a GIS technician role to an assistant CIO. Ms. Chandler does have some skills that could assist Mr. Branch, but he has so far refused to empower her to be successful. … It appears that Mr. Branch is in a role that he is unequipped to handle. He has been unable to mentor, motivate, or lead not only Ms. Chandler, but the entire IT staff.”

At 27 pages, the report covers nearly every aspect of the department and resources it’s supposed to be managing.

“It is our opinion that the City of Suffolk’s IT department is inadequately prepared to support the enterprise systems required to sustain a rapid growth model as outlined by the City of Suffolk leadership team,” the report states.

“Leadership and management deficiencies are directly responsible” for the department’s troubles, the report states.

Among the symptoms — using a single spreadsheet to keep track of the department’s entire inventory and asset lists; closing trouble tickets without performing work; substandard documentation of the department’s work; ineffective project management; minimal or no project meetings with stakeholders, vendors or team members; and many more.

The problems are not just affecting employees; they’re causing the city to waste money, according to the report.

“Lack of project budget planning and tracking contributes to multiple cases where projects run over budget or fail,” the report states. A certain software project is an example, the report says: The city failed to realize there was $110,000 still available in the contract and nearly spent another $55,000 on the same project.

The city also has had to hire outside vendors to solve user issues, because there are no advanced-level technicians, according to the report.

In addition, the report states, there is no asset request process, meaning individual departments decide on technology purchases without taking into account the needs of other departments or determining if something that will meet the need is already available.

Aside from leadership, applications support personnel was identified as the second most significant area of risk and concern. “Given these personnel support all city applications, this poses a significant risk to the city. Retaining these employees will be difficult and likely impossible if the current leadership does not change rapidly,” the report states.

The personnel lack skills to do their jobs, have little direction from leadership and were all seeking employment elsewhere at the time the report was compiled, it adds.

The lone bright spot in the report is praise for the Geographic Information Systems staff. The report noted they “were very experienced and proved to be the most stable.” Their largest concern is lack of leadership, the report says.

The report made 10 pages of recommendations, including establishing a project management office, introducing a “change agent” to work alongside Branch and Chandler and expand Branch’s leadership skills, reorganizing the department, and more.

Response to the report

In response to the report, according to confidential sources, City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn called the entire department to a meeting and told them to find other jobs if they wanted to. According to the sources, whose identities are being shielded because they fear retaliation, about 10 to 12 people have done just that in the last year.

The city refused to release its copy of the report in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, citing an exemption in state code for “working papers.”

The city also refused to comment on a myriad of questions based on the report, because the number of people with knowledge of the report’s contents is limited, according to Chief of Staff Debbie George. In addition, some of the questions relate to personnel matters, on which the city typically does not comment.

The city did release other documents related to the report, including invoices for $51,618.75 as payment for the assessment and other consulting services.

In a separate document released by the city, which was delivered to the city even before the full report was complete, the consultant recommended forming a project management office, noting that the “lack of project management is why nearly every project is either behind schedule or stalled. The city is paying for software and licenses that have yet to be fully deployed.”

Suffolk, according to a purchase order released by the city, paid an extra $225,600 for Endurance to design, implement and staff the Project Management Office.

An item on Wednesday’s City Council agenda will, if approved, change two job titles and eliminate two positions in the IT department. At least one of those changes, eliminating the network coordinator position, was specifically recommended by the Endurance report.

Endurance did not return a phone call seeking comment on this story. Only three City Council members, Robert Barclay, Curtis Milteer and Mike Duman, answered or returned phone calls seeking comment. All said they could not recall if they had seen the report.

“Something like that probably would have caught my attention, so I don’t think I remember seeing it,” Barclay said.

Councilman Leroy Bennett initially said he would talk but then did not return follow-up calls.

The Project Management Office

George, the city’s chief of staff, agreed to an interview focusing on the new Project Management Office, recommended and created by Endurance.

She admitted the city’s IT project management has struggled in the past.

“Challenges in the implementation of some of our software have existed,” she said. There was no central location for projects to be managed, no consistent method of acquiring software and no formal method of communicating on progress of projects.

She said it would have been possible, in the past, for two different departments to purchase the same software, because there was no communication.

Rachelle Ingram, who now manages the Project Management Office recommended and created by Endurance, characterized the state of IT projects as “all over the place” when she first took over.

But the office, up and running for only three months, has made “tremendous progress,” according to Ingram.

“We’ve just made some really great progress in what we’ve been able to do,” she said.

The office has instituted software that helps track various projects. Weekly meetings are held with the stakeholders on each project, and city leadership also receives regular updates. Projects are prioritized and scheduled.

She said several projects that had been stalled before the office took over are in the top-10 priority list. One, a scheduling and reservation system for the Parks and Recreation Department, has been fully implemented.

“I’m very excited at what we’ve been able to accomplish,” Ingram said. “The city’s been very receptive. They recognized this is something they didn’t have (that) they needed to have.”