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Poor management blamed for DWP customer billing problems

DWP says it made mistakes in rollout of new computer billing system

Poor management and an unprepared work force hampered the rollout of a new billing system by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, a new report says, resulting in thousands of incorrect billings and customer telephone hold times of up to two hours.

Those are the major findings of a consultant hired by DWP chief Marcie Edwards to analyze what went wrong in the September 2013 implementation of the new computer system, which integrated the utility's billing, customer service and other business functions.

The analysis by Austin-based TMG Consulting also found that the system's scope was too ambitious for the time frame given for it to go live.

Quality assurance analysts warned DWP managers that additional kinks needed to be worked out, but those concerns were ignored.

"There's overwhelming evidence that we weren't ready to go live, and yet the department made the decision to go live," said Randy Howard, a senior manager, told DWP commissioners Tuesday. 

Howard, whom Edwards named to tackle continuing problems in the system, presented TMG's 14-page report at the commission meeting.

The biggest problem was the lack of a single appointed project manager, the report says. Instead, the changeover was guided by a team of DWP managers. When things started to go wrong, there was no single person to take charge of addressing them.

"It's not a bad approach,'' Howard told commissioners. "But for a project like this, our consultant determined that it probably wasn't appropriate. It led to some poor decision making and some lack of accountability."

TMG's report and Howard did not name any specific managers as bearing blame. Ron Nichols, the DWP's chief at the time that the system was unveiled, resigned in January.

The report adds that the utility was also unprepared for the need for additional customer service staff to handle rising call volumes as problems mounted. It took months to get additional operators in place.

Howard told commissioners that the DWP was taking steps to address the root causes of dysfunction. He acknowledged that the rocky transition had eroded ratepayer trust. 

Edwards echoed that message in a prepared statement and said she was determined to focus the utility in a more customer-friendly way.

"Those skeptical will ask, 'How can we be sure you will actually improve?,' " Edwards said. "I point them, and you, to the strong progress made to date: We have reduced estimated bills, reduced delayed bills and reduced call wait times, among other significant progress."

Howard told commissioners that call times to the utility's customer service lines have dropped from a peak average of 37 minutes on hold in March to about seven minutes in October. Delayed and estimated billings have also dropped significantly, according to DWP records.

Edward was hired by Mayor Eric Garcetti in January to replace Nichols.

Times staff writer Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report

Follow me on Twitter at @csaillant2

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