Just weeks into his new job as head of technology for the Commonwealth, Bill Oates was called to a State House hearing to examine the problems bedeviling a number of high-profile systems projects over the past year.
Oates seemed to barely break a sweat.
The former chief information officer for the City of Boston knew what he was getting into. After seven years in the Menino administration, Oates assumed his new statewide role at a time of heightened scrutiny on projects worth tens of millions of dollars.
Three major information technology contracts at big agencies have run into serious trouble. The problems have cast a cloud over Governor Deval Patrick’s record of modernizing the state’s outdated systems. And the governor, who hopes to spend nearly $1 billion more on updating technology, is counting on Oates to right the ship.
Former colleagues call Oates a skilled manager with a vision for cutting through complexity.
“He has an ability to marshal folks moving in his direction, said Justin Holmes, who succeeded Oates as Boston’s interim CIO. “He’s also someone who just knows how to get things done.”
There is a lot to do.
The Health Connector website may be the governor’s greatest IT embarrassment, frustrating thousands of people who are trying to sign up for insurance. The Labor Department’s unemployment site arrived two years late and full of errors that clogged the system. And the Department of Revenue fired the same firm that built Labor’s system, Deloitte Consulting, after paying it $54 million for another troubled project.
Deloitte executives defend their work, saying the claims system is working for a majority of people who file for benefits. They also say the Revenue Department contract broke down after state officials wanted to change direction.
But the problems have revealed layers of dysfunction in the way the state awards contracts and then monitors the progress of projects.
For one thing, state officials acknowledge that too few companies bid to work on these large and complex technology contracts. Deloitte recently won yet another project, to update the Registry of Motor Vehicles licensing system. It got the $77 million job despite its issues with other agencies and was chosen over just one rival bidder.
In the past, agencies often negotiated and oversaw technology contracts on their own. With regular turnover, government officials responsible for contracts are often gone before systems are implemented. At the hearing last month, a string of officials testified that they had no direct knowledge about what went wrong with projects or any idea how to manage them better in the future.
Oates pledged that his office would take a much more active role in the state’s big IT contracts. “There needs to be meaningful involvement from my office in all of these projects,” he told lawmakers.
The administration is betting that centralizing oversight will help keep projects from running off the rails. For that strategy to succeed, Oates needs to fill a lot of jobs in a technology department ravaged by employee departures.
At the end of 2013, half of the 20 senior staff jobs at the state’s Information Technology Division were vacant. Many of the jobs pay $90,000 or more a year, but the state competes with a private sector that needs lots of tech talent and pays far more.
The state’s former technology chief, John Letchford, left in December for a job at Tufts University. His predecessor now holds the top technology position at Harvard. Another ranking member of the department landed at Wellington Management, an elite Boston investment firm.
“The fact is that IT unemployment in our area is almost zero and the state doesn’t pay close to competitive levels,” said Anne Margulies, the former state chief information officer who works at Harvard.
Oates, 57, has spent much of his own career in the private sector. He served as chief information officer for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. of Stamford, Conn., and Sheraton Hotels before that. He is a Boston College graduate with a law degree from Suffolk University in Boston.
On Oates’s watch at City Hall, Boston won awards for its digital initiatives. He oversaw a staff of 130 and helped usher in programs to improve citizen access to government.
In one example, his department implemented a $6 million system to better handle resident complaints. Then it added smartphone apps like Citizens Connect, which anyone can use to report potholes or darkened street lights, simply by snapping a photo. The app records the location via GPS, routes the information to repair workers, and then follows up with a confirmation when the job is done.
Oates renamed the city’s old systems group the Department of Innovation and Technology. “That’s the culture he created in this department,’’ Holmes said. “He really in many ways made it much easier to recruit and retain talent.’’
Now with a state staff of 350, Oates is working to fill several top jobs in the department, including computer security and legal staff. He has a new chief engineer on the way, too, and must still recruit a new chief technology officer and a deputy CIO.
“IT recruitment and retention in state government is a challenge,’’ Oates said. “We have challenges here. But I would also say we’re doing things about that — we want this to be an attractive place for IT professionals to work.’’
Oates recently hired a chief operating officer, a new position created by an executive order from the governor to handle many of the department’s internal responsibilities. Oates’s predecessor was often mired in work tending to e-mail systems and making sure data centers were operational. Even a basic government spending website languished in disrepair for months.
Oates has spent his first weeks on the job focused on areas needing urgent attention, like the Connector site. Still other important projects, which have received less public notice, will probably move onto his radar soon.
The Massachusetts State Retirement Board, for instance, is responsible for paying pension benefits to 55,000 retirees. Executive director Nick Favorito said the board’s computer system is so old it uses COBOL code dating back to the 1970s.
Favorito compares the system to a big calculator: It’s not interactive or adaptive; information cannot be shared with other agencies; and, perhaps most importantly, retirees cannot access accounts online, so they have to call in for information.
“It’s not a very efficient way to run an agency that pays out $1.4 billion in benefits a year,’’ Favorito said.
A new system is more than a year late, due to changes in the law that developer Sagitec Solutions of St. Paul, Minn., needed time to address, Favorito said. It is now expected by summer, at a cost of $11 million, up from the original $9.8 million.
Having seen the difficulties unfold with other new systems, Favorito wants to make sure his is not launched until it is ready. If checks are “off by a day, or off a penny, we get phone calls,’’ he said. “We want to make sure that we get it right.’’Beth Healy can be reached at email@example.com.