Recent news that two separate state contracts with information-technology giant Deloitte Consulting had turned into disasters elicited groans across the Commonwealth. Despite Deloitte’s checkered history with projects in other states, Massachusetts’ Revenue and Labor departments hired the company to design major software systems. The tax-filing software that Deloitte delivered to the Revenue Department was so unusable that the firm’s contract was terminated, and the unemployment-benefits system built for the Labor Department was finished two years late and $6 million over budget.
These failures are evidence of a broader problem with government IT purchases: Public agencies — particularly individual departments that don’t regularly put multimillion-dollar contracts out to bid — are often short on the technical expertise needed to negotiate terms and supervise progress. This problem isn’t going away, and the state needs to address it more directly by centralizing IT strategy and planning in one top-level position.
For its part, Deloitte maintains it has delivered thousands of projects “without incident” for agencies in 45 different states. Regardless, government agencies are generally at disadvantage in these situations, in part because people with the skills to oversee complex technology deals can generally command much higher salaries in the private sector. At the least, the state should channel its IT purchases through a single office; this unified brain trust would see enough contracts to vet each one more effectively.
In 2009 — well after the Labor Department first sought to buy a new software system — Governor Patrick used an executive order to consolidate much of the executive branch’s IT infrastructure under the control of the state’s chief information officer, a position currently held by John Letchford. Some of the recommendations Letchford has made — such as proposing a standardized rubric by which government officials can monitor technology contracts — could help ensure that future procurements are handled more efficiently. Recently, a legislative panel proposed a special commission to develop similar guidelines.
The state needs to do more. The chief information officer needs the authority not just to help agencies plan their IT purchases, but to oversee the IT budgets of all state agencies. A centralized technology office with real budgetary powers would be in a much better position to monitor software contractors — and to reduce duplication among departments to boot. The government’s business dealings with IT companies will only grow in scope and complexity as time goes on, so Massachusetts needs to crack this problem now.