A memo obtained Friday by The Buzz instructs state employees how to deal with problems afflicting Florida's new $63 million unemployment benefits website.
"The system should become more stable as we daily progress as changes/fixes are being moved into production on a regular basis. It is important that we do not convey the wrong message to the public, so please do not advise claimants that the system is down unless official word from management is received." (Bold added for emphasis).
Emailed Friday to Department of Economic Opportunity offices across the state, the memo raises obvious and troubling questions.
What is the "wrong" message? More importantly, what is the "right" message? And is this suggesting that the site has indeed been down, which officials have denied since CONNECT debuted on Tuesday? When asked late Friday for comment, DEO Spokeswoman Monica Russell repeated that the system has not been down.
"If you read that message, it clearly says that we are constantly instituting updates to the system as we are alerted to issues claimants may be encountering," Russell said in an e-mail. "The system was never down, so it would have been a 'wrong message' to the public to say that it was.'"
On the face of it, however, the memo supports a strong impression made this week by DEO officials that Florida hasn't been forthcoming in disclosing the extent of problems with CONNECT and its vendor, Deloitte Consulting LLP.
All week, DEO officials have insisted that this investment in the new website, CONNECT, has been a success. They've released limited information that they say confirms the website is handling the demands of a system with 235,000 claimants. But they have yet to provide how many claimants have failed or been delayed in filing, or how many calls are being made to state help centers.
On Wednesday, The Buzz asked DEO if Deloitte had been put on notice for non-performance. The response?
"In design, it was realized it was going to take longer meet (sic) the requirements and the project was extended 10 months as a result of a corrective action plan at no additional costs to the agency, but still within the projected four year time frame anticipated by the feasibility study," said a DEO spokeswoman Jessica Sims.
Sims failed to disclose a June 15, 2012 letter from the DEO's project manager, Tom McCullion, to John Hugill, principal of Deloitte Consulting LLP. The purpose of the letter is stated at the top: "Notice of Intent to Terminate."
The letter stated that Deloitte's "demonstrated inability to implement the solution in other jurisdictions has undermined the DEO's confidence that Deloitte will successfully complete the implementation in Florida...it now appears that the DEO is being asked to fund a software development project with limited prospects for success."
Also, the letter mentions that the "go-live" date of October 2013 is later than "the parties bargained for."
Asked about this letter, Sims replied in an e-mail:
"More than a year ago, Deloitte was not meeting the contractual deliverables before the design for CONNECT was complete. DEO took action with intent to terminate the contract with cause. However, it had been determined by several consulting firms that our old system was at serious risk of failure and engaging in another procurement process would further delay the implementation date so a Corrective Action Plan was instituted. Deloitte agreed to pay financial restitution and abide by the contractual performance conditions. Deloitte also changed their project management team and added additional staff to the project site. The project has been rigorously monitored by DEO, external auditors and consultants specializing in systems implementation. With Deloitte meeting the contractual requirements of the design, development, and testing phase gates, it was recommended by the Executive Steering Committee, that had guided the project since inception, that CONNECT be launched."
Asked why she didn't provide this information Wednesday, or disclose the letter, Sims didn't reply.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Labor have already alleged that Gov. Rick Scott's administration is violating civil rights by requiring the recipients to file claims online. Because of furloughs from the government shutdown, it's unclear how federal officials are monitoring the situation.
Meanwhile, claimants across the state have been contacting The Buzz about problems they are encountering.
"It's been a disaster," said Dave Jones, a former defense contractor in Bradenton who has been out of work for more than a year. "Why did the state put out such a horrible piece of software. It doesn't work, and I've tried calling probably 100 times, and I just can't get any help."