AUSTIN (KXAN) — City officials finally want to bring Austin’s antiquated, 17-year-old timekeeping system into the 21st century, following years of work trying to find an affordable upgrade, according to a Jan. 20 memo.
More than 13,000 city employees still manually complete paper time sheets, a process numerous workers have called wasteful, inefficient and costly, according to internal comments and memos obtained by KXAN.
“We recognize that we are behind the times, when it comes to our time sheet processes,” said Rebecca Kennedy, chief administrative officer of human resources.
Kennedy said new “cloud-based” technology could be Austin’s ticket to a modern system. Cloud-based systems are easily upgraded and could be more affordable than the non-cloud alternatives adopted in recent years by other major Texas cities.
If Austin upgrades its payroll system, it would likely be part of a major overhaul of the overarching “human capital management system,” city officials said.
“We recognize that the manual processing of timesheets is cumbersome, but what we don’t want to do is jump into a brand new system or something that is not going to meet our full needs, as we push forward with a total overhaul,” Kennedy added.
Including copies, Austin likely uses over 750,000 sheets of paper per year just on time sheets, and that does not include leave requests and other paper-based HR tasks, according to city records.
City workers have said the analog system does not fit with Austin’s image of being green and the “best managed city in the country,” according to internal comments obtained by KXAN through the Texas Public Information Act.
In one effort to reduce paper use, some Austin Energy employees took part in a 2012 pilot program intended to eliminate paper timesheets for exempt employees.
“There is no legal requirement for time sheets for exempt employees—it’s a culturally based approach from a pre-digital era,” the city wrote in a communications plan for the pilot program obtained by KXAN. “The cash-plus-productivity cost is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
In the plan, exempt workers would fill out only a form to change their schedule, rather than filling out a timesheet if they worked their regular number hours.
City workers and taxpayers “desire for the city to save both time and money,” to be “green” and to be the “best managed city in the country.” To accomplish those objectives, the city should improve efficiency in its business practices, including eliminating paper time sheets, a pilot plan memo stated.
The program never made it out of the pilot stage, though the first two stages were deemed “successful,” according to internal documents.
Assistant City Manager Mark Washington said the pilot program didn’t actually reduce the amount of manual timekeeping. While exempt employees could skip filling out a weekly time-sheet, the record had to be filled out by somebody else.
“We wanted to see if we could create more efficiencies without changing technology,” Washington said. “The answer was that we really need to change the technology, if we really want to change the efficiencies.”
City employees have devoted significant hours to working on moving off paper and onto a digital platform for basic city processes, Washington added.
To help move to an electronic system, the city contracted with Gartner Inc., a technology research firm, in 2014.
Last in line
A 2014 Gartner presentation advised city leaders that Austin’s current system has numerous limitations and should be replaced with something contemporary.
For payroll, the city has used a system called Banner intended for higher education institutions.
Beyond a paper-based payroll system, Gartner found Austin is the 11th largest city in America, “with supporting technology for human capitol that is inferior to other large municipalities.” The firms analysis also found the city’s paper-based management systems created many instances of inefficiencies and increased risks, according to the report.
Washington said city officials are being careful to find the best affordable technology. Other Texas cities have paid huge sums for their electronic systems. For instance, San Antonio paid $96 million for its program, which includes finance and asset management, according to a city analysis. Fort Worth spent $22 million and Travis County spent $27 million on their respective electronic systems, according to the same analysis.
Staff expects to provide the Austin city manager with options for an electronic management system to be considered as part of the 2017 budget, according to a memo Wednesday.
Kennedy said budgeting for any new system will compete with other pressing needs.
“In talking to our taxpayers, would they want more services at the parks or to know that our employees were using an electric time process?” Kennedy said. “That is what we really have to weigh, when it comes to our budget.”