By Tony Collins
If one thing unites all failing IT-based megaprojects in the public sector it is the defensive shield of denial that suppliers and their clients hold up when confronted by bad news.
It has happened in the US and UK this week. On the Universal Credit project, the minister in charge of the scheme, Lord Freud, accepted none of the criticisms in a National Audit Office report “Universal Credit: early progress”. In a debate in the House of Lords Lord Freud quoted from two tiny parts of the NAO report that could be interpreted as positive comments.
“Spending so far is a small proportion of the total budget … and it is still entirely feasible that [universal credit] goes on to achieve considerable benefits for society,” said Lord Freud, quoting the NAO report.
But he mentioned none of the criticisms in the 55-page NAO report which concluded:
“At this early stage of the Universal Credit programme the Department has not achieved value for money. The Department has delayed rolling out Universal Credit to claimants, has had weak control of the programme, and has been unable to assess the value of the systems it spent over £300 million to develop.
“These problems represent a significant setback to Universal Credit and raise wider concerns about the Department’s ability to deal with weak programme management, over-optimistic timescales, and a lack of openness about progress.”
And a shield of denial went up in the US this week where newspapers on the east and west coast published stories on failing public sector IT-based megaprojects. The LA [Los Angeles] Times said:
As many as 300,000 jobless affected by state software snags
“California lawmakers want to know why Deloitte’s unemployment benefits system arrived with major bugs and at almost double the cost estimate. The firm says the system is working.”
The LA Times continued:
“Problems are growing worse for the state’s Employment Development Department after a new computer system backfired, leaving some Californians without much-needed benefit cheques for weeks.”
The Department said the problems affected 80,000 claims but the LA Times obtained internal emails that showed the software glitches stopped payment to as many as 300,000 claimants.
Now lawmakers are setting up a hearing to determine what went wrong with a system that cost taxpayers $110m, almost double the original estimate.
Some blame the Department’s slow response to the problems. Others point the finger at a Deloitte Consulting.
The LA Times says that Deloitte has a “history of delivering projects over budget and with problematic results”. Deloitte also has been blamed, in part, for similar troubles with upgrades to unemployment software in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Florida, says the paper.
“We keep hiring the same company, and they keep having the same issues,” said Senator Anthony Cannella. “At some point, it’s on us for hiring the same company. It’s faulty logic, and we’ve got to get better.”
In 2003 California planned to spend $58m upgrading its 30-year-old unemployment benefits system. By the time the state awarded Deloitte the contract in 2010 the cost estimate had grown by more than $30m.
The Department handed out $6.6bn to about 1 million unemployed Californians in 2012. The software was expected to ease the agency’s ability to verify who was eligible to receive benefits.
Problems began when the Department transferred old unemployment data to the new system. The software flagged claims for review — requiring state workers to manually process them.
The LA Times says that officials thought initially the workload would be manageable, but internal emails showed the agency was quickly overwhelmed. Phone lines were jammed. For weeks, the Department’s employees have been working overtime to clear the backlog.
A poor contract?
In a contract amendment signed two months ago California agreed to pay Deloitte $3.5m for five months of maintenance and operations costs. Those costs should have been anticipated in the contract said Michael Krigsman, a software consultant who is an expert on why big IT-based contracts go awry. He told the LA Times:
“It’s a striking oversight that maintenance was not anticipated at the beginning of the contract when the state was at a much stronger negotiation position.”
By the time the middle of a project is reached, the state has no choice but to stick with Deloitte to work out bugs that arise when the system goes live, he said.
Loree Levy, a spokeswoman for the Department, said the system is working, processing 80% of claims on time. As for the troubles, she said, “There is a period of transition or adjustment with any large infrastructure upgrade like this one.”
Deloitte spokeswoman Courtney Flaherty said the new California system is working and that problems are not the result of a “breakdown or flaw in the software Deloitte developed”.
System not working?
While there seems to be no project disaster in the eyes of the Department and Deloitte Consulting, some of the unemployed see things differently. One wrote:
“I am a contract worker who had to fight for my unemployment benefits. I won my case and yet they still cannot pay me… It’s been more than 3 weeks since I won my appeal and as of this moment, I am owed 13 weeks of back payments. To add insult to injury, they cannot send me current weeks to certify and they refuse to even try to help me to get back into the online system.
“I blame Deloitte, but it is California that carries the heaviest burden of fault… We’re nearing November and they still haven’t fixed an issue that began over Labor Day? Nonsense!
“This is untenable for everyone affected …We are owed reparations as well as our money at this point. It’s a funny word, affected. That means families and individuals are going hungry but can’t get food stamps or welfare. It means evictions and repossessed cars. It means destroyed credit, late fees, years of turmoil and shame for people already dealing with unemployment. Shame on you California.”
“ … Not communicating is NOT an answer. Unemployed individuals caught up in the nightmare were told to be patient. Rents and other expenses were still accumulating. But [when you] add on additional fees: late fees, restoral fees, interest fees, etc…….you get the picture.
“Dear Governor Brown,
“Please reimburse me for all additional fees I’ve had to absorb to survive this fiasco. You are going to make me payback any overpayments, but ignore the cost to the unemployed taxpayer. This is appears to unfair. Perhaps Deloitte should pay us back from their contracted funds before they receive their final payment. I am saving all of my receipts to deduct from my 2013 tax return.
“BTW Gov Brown – I am still waiting on additional payments as of today and DMV registration for my vehicle was due on 10/20/13. Are you going to waive the penalty for late payment? Am I the only one with this question?”
California’s state Assembly has set a date of 6 November 2013 for a hearing into the Department’s system upgrade.
“We’re going to look at EDD, the contractors and others to see how the system broke down so we can avoid this in the future,” said Henry Perea, chair of the Assembly’s Insurance Committee, which has oversight over the jobless benefits program.
On its website Deloitte says:
“Deloitte continues to help EDD [Employment Development Department] transform the level of service it provides to unemployed workers and improve the quality of information collected by EDD. The next time unemployment spikes, California should be ready to meet the increased demand for services.”
Massachutsetts IT disaster?
On the opposite coast the Boston Globe reported on an entirely separate debacle (which also involved Deloitte):
None admit fault on troubled jobless benefits system
“… even with the possibility that unemployed workers could face months more of difficulties and delays in getting benefits, officials from the Labor Department and contractor, Deloitte Consulting of New York, testified before the Senate Committee on Post Audit that the rollout of the computer system was largely a success.
“‘I am happy with the launch,’ said Joanne F. Goldstein, secretary of Labour and Workforce Development, noting that she would have liked some aspects to have gone better.
“Mark Price, a Deloitte principal in charge of the firm’s Massachusetts business, acknowledged that software has faced challenges during the rollout, but insisted, ‘We have a successful working system today. ‘’’
A shield of denial was up for years at the Department of Health whose CIOs and other spokespeople repeatedly claimed that the NPfIT was a success.
If you didn’t know that Universal Credit IT wasn’t working, or that thousands of people on the east and west coasts of the US hadn’t been paid unemployment benefits because of IT-related problems, and you had to rely on only the public comments of the IT suppliers and government spokespeople, you would have every reason to believe that Universal Credit and the jobless systems in Massachusetts and California were working well.
Why is it that after every failed IT-based megaproject those in charge can simply blow the truth gently away like soap bubbles?
When confronted by bad news, suppliers and their customers tend to join hands behind their defensive shields. On the other side are politicians, members of the public affected by the megaprojects and the press who have all, according to suppliers and officials, got it wrong.
Is this why lessons from public sector IT-based project disasters are not always learned? Because, in the eyes of suppliers and their clients, the disasters don’t really exist?