Capital Goods: January 2014

Government does not compute

That the major policy initiative of the Obama administration nearly has been undone by a government website’s glitches might come as a shock to many but not to watchers of state government. If North Carolina’s experiences are any indication, HealthCare.gov’s stumbling and bumbling are standard operating procedure when it comes to government and computer systems. It has been that way quite a while, and it doesn’t seem to matter who’s in charge. In 2006, the N.C. Officer of Information Technology Services found that the final price of five of the state’s 10 biggest IT projects of the preceding decade came in 65% over budget, overruns that cost taxpayers $205 million. Seven years later, State Auditor Beth Wood issued a report examining 84 projects that came in more than double their estimated cost, 65% of them plagued by delays.

The project grabbing the most attention this year is NCTracks, the new Medicaid management-information system. If they could, doctors and hospital administrators who depend on it for payment for treating poor patients probably would rename it NCLacks. Its troubled history dates to 2004, when Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services Inc. got the $171 million contract to build a new system. Two years later, the state canceled the deal, citing breach of contract. It paid $16.5 million for work completed and to settle the lawsuit that ensued. Starting over in 2008, it awarded Falls Church, Va.-based Computer Science Corp. a $365 million contract with an August 2011 deadline. When the system became operational in July 2013, the price had almost doubled. Health-care providers still having problems getting paid would say it’s still not operational.

This example isn’t unique. Delays beset and complaints dogged North Carolina Window of Information on Student Education — NC WISE — which let school systems manage and parents track student information. Estimated at $54 million, it cost $117 million. Over the course of a decade, North Carolina Families Assessing Services through Technology — NC FAST — has been scuttled, relaunched and is still a headache for social-services recipients. Other major projects include an $42 million administrative-information project for the community-college system that came in at $92 million and the Department of Revenue’s Tax Information Management System — TIMS — which has cost more than twice its estimate and is still not fully functional. In this misery, North Carolina has plenty of company. Consider Maine, Ohio and Idaho, which did credible imitations of the Three Stooges with the mayhem created by the Medicaid claims systems they put together in recent years. Auditors in New York blamed obsolete features for $500 million in waste and fraud in its. The contractor: Computer Science Corp., same as ours. After spending $21 million, Tennessee officials pulled the plug on something called the Vision Integration Platform, similar to NC FAST.

Many so-called experts have weighed in on why this happens. Trying to explain the HealthCare.gov debacle, some opine that something got lost in translation between the bureaucrats who knew what they wanted from the system and the software-code writers given the job of making it happen. John Turcotte, who leads the state legislature’s Program Evaluation Division, told lawmakers that the problem is lack of expertise among state project managers, people paid public-sector wages to supervise this work. Turcotte wondered whether it would be better to hire another vendor to do that. He must have missed the fact that the state did just that with NCTracks and, by the end of the three-year ordeal, was threatening to fire the watchdog. The answer to the problem, the state auditor says, is holding project managers accountable.

She might be right, but no one is certain how to accomplish that. Legislators tried to create accountability by establishing a state office of IT services to help oversee major projects. They’ve also changed the way state lawyers draw up multimillion-dollar contracts. That’s fine. But if project managers don’t see their primary job as being tough-minded defenders of taxpayers’ money, officials will continue to find that what’s good enough for government does not compute with the public.

Scott Mooneyham is editor of The Insider, www.ncinsider.com. Email him at smooneyh@ncinsider.com.