Case Study 14: How Texas Wasted $367 Million on an Unusable Child Support Enforcement System
After investing $367.5 million in a child support enforcement system, the only thing that the state of Texas has to show for is some hard-won lessons.
Initiated by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) in 2007, “T2” aimed to deliver a secure, web-based system to automate manual functions, streamline daily operations, enable staff to manage case information online, and offer multiple platforms for parents to communicate with the Child Support Division (CSD). Other planned improvements included a comprehensive electronic case file system, standardized forms, an integrated solution for reporting systems, automated generation of child support case documents, and enhanced automation to efficiently establish and enforce child support orders.
Fifteen months behind the original completion date of December 2017 and saddled with a budget that had ballooned from $223.6 to $419.6 million, as of May 2019, state workers were still without a workable system to standardize and simplify child support applications. This angered federal backers to the point where they decided to absorb the loss of the 66% of funding they had contributed to T2.
Senator Jane Nelson, a Flower Mound Area Republican who co-chairs the House-Senate budget conference committee summed it up with: “ Stop the bleeding.” This was echoed by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a GOP budget writer, who pointed out: “ This was a $60 million idea — $340 million ago. “
Perhaps not surprisingly, the project was abandoned four months later.
To be clear, this decision has not affected payments from non-custodial parents to their children and former spouses. After all, a clunky “T1” mainframe system of record keeping — complete with glowing green computer screens that date to the mid-1990s — is still in use by state workers. As they continue to use the system designed by Accenture, under an earlier contract, most workers would be lost without their “ quick reference card “ that is crammed with acronyms they need to enter before inputting a client’s personal information.
Even with their antiquated system, Texas child support workers managed to collect $4.4 billion in the last state fiscal year — the largest amount collected by any state.
Before we continue with this case study…
> For an overview of all case studies I have written please click here.
Timeline of Events
In 2007, talks commenced on the need to update the child support enforcement system to establish orders, enforce compliance, and collect and disburse payments.
Soon after, Deloitte was hired to make tech recommendations and create a roadmap to implement the new child support enforcement system.
In 2009, the OAG estimated that the system would cost $223.6 million to develop and would be completed in 2017.
Since August of 2010, the T2 project has been under federal independent verification and validation (IV&V) by the Office of Child Support Enforcement.
That October, Accenture was awarded the contract to develop the system, which was valued at $69.8 million.
A research team at the University of Texas’ Center for Advanced Research in Software Engineering (ARiSE) was contracted to complete semi-annual reviews on quality and progress in July 2011.
Deloitte delivered its final blueprint in 2012 and exited the project.
From March 2012 to November 2014, there were 27 change orders initiated by the CSD that inflated the value of Accenture’s contract to $98.3 million.
Ken Paxton took over as the attorney general in 2015, succeeding Greg Abbott (who became governor).
In an excerpt from the October 2015 IV&V report, it was noted that the T2 project was: (1) being driven by an “ unrealistic schedule”; (2) the quality of the code components Accenture delivered were “ below the expectations” of the OAG; and (3) uncertainty about the development strategy would likely have a “ negative effect “ on the work environment (including cost increases, staff turnover, and lower productivity).
On November 30, 2015, the OAG was notified that federal funds for the T2 system development contract were frozen pending the approval of an updated project schedule and corrective action plan. The following month, legislators were given a rundown of how the project went off the rails. Their reactions ranged from stunned and confused to frustrated.
“ I am kind of speechless,” said Rep. Helen Giddings, D-DeSoto.
“ I’m just going down a rabbit trail to Wonderland,” explained Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin.
When a reporter referred to the project as “ a challenge,” Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, had this to say: “ I’m not going to call this a challenge. There are some other words I’d like to call it, but we’re being videotaped.”
At the same time as Accenture took responsibility for some of the failure, its spokesperson seized on University of Texas software expert Herbert Krasner’s testimony that Deloitte’s $46 million system blueprint was “ not worth the paper it was printed on.” Deloitte’s media representative responded that when they exited the project in 2012, neither Abbott’s office nor Accenture voiced any concerns over their blueprint.
The OAG’s office and Accenture agreed to a major contract amendment in 2016. It called for increased reporting to a new state executive steering committee, payments that were commensurate with the quality of the work, and a $20 million “hold” on Accenture’s final check until it was clear that the federal Administration for Children and Families would sign off on the work.
Along with the project governance, Amendment №1 reset the T2 delivery date to December 2018 and increased the contract to $150.1 million.
Due to changing federal form requirements, Amendment №2 (issued in January 2018) reset the T2 delivery date to March 2019 and increased the Accenture contract to $156.9 million.
In September 2019, Ken Paxton’s office confirmed that the (much-maligned) T2 software project had been abandoned, and that they were seeking a cheaper alternative:
“ The costs of moving forward with those challenges, when coupled with the ongoing costs to maintain the system upon completion, can no longer be justified when newer technologies exist that are capable of providing the necessary functionality at a lower cost to build and maintain, thus providing a better value to Texas taxpayers. “
What Went Wrong
In January 2007, Deloitte’s contract to update the model for OAG’s child support services had an initial value of $1.8 million. Following the OAG’s 5 renewal options, the final contract was valued at $46 million. In that same vein, the system development contract (awarded to Accenture in October 2010) was valued at $69.8 million. After the OAG issued 30 change orders, the value increased to $156.9 million.
According to the Legislative Budget Board, from the idea phase through to January 2019, it cost $367.5 million — $124.9 million of which was state funding.
In order to turn a profit, Accenture had to outsource much of their custom development work to 165 programmers in India. Despite security concerns, the Indian programmers were given access to state data and worked on code remotely.
Reviewers repeatedly noted they were “ concerned with the low level of quality for work products and deliverables submitted by Accenture. “
On multiple occasions, the IV&V team reported that T2 had resulted in sub-standard processing speeds, and that switching on key security software only made the issue worse. Although improvements were made over time, the performance was never deemed satisfactory by IV&V.
Defects and Integration Issues
In the summer of 2018, OAG staff ordered additional joint system testing of T2, which revealed over 1000 defects — ranging from minor typos to severe security issues that had to be resolved before proceeding.
Compounding the issue, the process to pull financial data from the original T1 system into T2 was not working correctly.
Due to delays, the core security software had lost vendor support and needed to be upgraded before T2 could be deployed. This upgrade could not begin until all system defects were addressed.
How OAG Could Have Done Things Differently
During a recent hearing, Accenture T2 project executive sponsor, Ben Foster testified to Capriglione’s sub-committee that the company “ did not deliver the value you expected of us.” However, since the 2016 contract amendment gave the company financial “ skin in the game,” Foster said, “ We’ve made tremendous progress.”
In response, Capriglione claimed that, while researching Accenture’s work in other states, he spoke with people who’d tell him “ it’s really not a software company, it’s a contracting company. They make very good contracts. It’s very difficult to get out of [them].”
Capriglione, who spent two sessions as head of the appropriations sub-committee probing the state’s contracting woes, said of Accenture: “ I’m totally torqued at them. Now, if there’s any good that can come of this, it is that we are now learning all of the things we should never do when we write contracts.”
On a related note, I recommend reading “ 10 Important Questions to Ask before Signing your Cloud Computing Contract.”
Being Transparent and Realistic
As early as 2011, ARiSE researchers noted significant problems that only worsened over the years. The records detail how state officials — under Abbott’s chief of child support, Charles Smith — failed to hold Accenture accountable as the project missed major deadlines and morphed into an overly complicated tangle of hundreds of software bundles.
Records show that each time a deadline was about to be missed, state officials simply extended the timeframe (this occurred on at least seven occasions). Officials in the Child Support Division referred to this as a “re-baseline” — a maneuver that obscured the project’s failings, increased costs, and delayed completion.
For more insights on this topic, please see “ 8 Signs of Troubled Projects for Project Sponsors.”
In many companies, these projects tend to fall under the category of “group responsibility.” Extending this thinking to, say, an incoming Attorney General, it is easy to pass the buck (“ Oh right, that project that was led by my predecessor”).
Every software project must have a competent director who owns it and is responsible for both the successes and failures from idea phase through to completion. Without end-to-end managerial involvement, today’s business software projects are doomed to whole and half failures. Anyone who does not understand this would do well to postpone new projects.
See “ Successful Projects Need Executive Champions” for more on this topic.
Be a Responsible Buyer of Technology
In any organization, it’s crucial to buy technology and implement services responsibly, not to mention work well with suppliers. More than any other factor, projects fail because these skills are lacking.
While some people may argue that suppliers should have all the skills that are required to make a company’s project a success, that’s a matter of wishful thinking or good luck. Responsible buyers are capable of spotting when a supplier and/or the product is failing, and can mitigate risks by taking decisive actions.
For more insights on this topic, I invite you to read “ Be a Responsible Buyer of Technology.”
At the time of writing, state workers are still clinging to their “quick reference cards” to input acronyms and fill in their client’s personal information. They wait in limbo for the system that was supposed to help them get rid of paper files, access services remotely, and benefit from automated prompts and the ability to generate drafts of court filings. These employees and American taxpayers are the real losers in this debacle.
Other Project Failure Case Studies
> For an overview of all case studies I have written please click here.
> To download 10 of my Project Failure Case Studies in a single eBook and be notified about new Project Failure Case Studies just subscribe to my weekly newsletter here.
Originally published at https://www.henricodolfing.com.