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Here’s why Florida’s information technology projects keep failing

“We’re still doing things the way it was done 20, 30 years ago,” one of the state’s former tech officers said.

TALLAHASSEE — When it became clear this month that multiple state agencies shared a single password for their emergency messaging systems — and that the password was posted online — some observers were not surprised.

It was just the latest in a series of high-profile information technology failures to roil the Sunshine State.

For more than two decades, Florida has struggled when it comes to information technology. Officials have created, abolished, and recreated a state technology office at least three times. Many of the state’s biggest projects have been marred by scandal and incompetence and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

“It’s really been a series of disappointments,” said Alan Shark, executive director of the Illinois think tank Public Technology Institute who co-wrote a book on best practices for state technology.

That hit home for millions of Floridians earlier this year, when the online unemployment claims system, known as CONNECT, melted down under a historic wave of jobless claims triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Experts aren’t entirely in the dark as to why Florida is so dysfunctional.

For years, it was one of the only states in the nation that didn’t have a chief information officer. And its disjointed system of handling information technology needs across dozens of state agencies has caused headaches for bureaucrats and citizens alike.

State lawmakers will likely consider spending tens of millions of dollars to shore up the unemployment claims system next session. But experts say it will take a far greater effort to fix Florida’s long-standing woes.

Doomed from the start

Florida, like most states, has one fundamental problem when it comes to information technology: it’s decentralized.

The state has at least 50 different departments and agencies, each with its own information director or chief information officer with multi-million dollar budgets. Many of them are overseen not by the governor, but by the three other independently-elected statewide officers that make up the Cabinet: the chief financial officer, attorney general and agriculture commissioner.

With so many fiefdoms, it’s been virtually impossible for Florida to coordinate individual information technology projects, much less execute a comprehensive vision of the state’s technology future.

Nearly every state has faced similar challenges, with varying degrees of success.

What has set Florida apart, however, is the numerous times it has tried, and failed, to consolidate its technology offices.

Gov. Jeb Bush, who held office from 1999 to 2007, was the first to make a real effort.

Bush took pride in being nicknamed the “e-governor.” He created a new state technology office to lead government into the 21st Century.

His new office, led by a new chief information officer, was supposed to save taxpayers millions each year by negotiating contracts across state government, rather than by individual agencies, and ensuring project rollouts were compatible with one another.

It was also supposed to transform the way Floridians interacted with their state government. Citizens could go to a single website to renew their driver’s licenses, apply for occupational licenses, register to vote. Like a state-run version of Amazon.com, the site would know who you were and what you wanted (or needed) when you logged in.

State lawmakers, despite some skepticism, approved a 1,700-employee office with a $600 million budget.

But to lead this historic effort, Bush did not seek out a national, state or even agency leader. Instead, he chose a guy who helped on his campaign.

It was doomed almost from the start.

Instantly, questions were raised about the cozy ties between lobbyists representing technology companies and the state’s technology office. Bush’s choice to lead the office, Roy Cales, was arrested on an unrelated fraud charge and resigned less than two years later. His replacement, Kim Bahrami, dished out more than $170 million in contracts to two companies that were retracted after state auditors found the awards violated state laws.

Bush did not respond to requests for comment. Cales couldn’t be reached for comment.

Lawmakers quickly grew tired of the scandals. Within five years, they stripped the office of funding, effectively killing it.

Problems continue

The state’s information technology system never recovered.

In 2007, lawmakers created the Agency for Enterprise Information Technology. Five years later, they stripped it of funding.

In 2014, then-Gov. Rick Scott created the Agency for State Technology in another attempt to coordinate information technology projects across the state. But lawmakers grew tired of the office awarding tens of millions in no-bid contracts, and effectively closed it last year.

This year, Gov. Ron DeSantis created yet another office: the Florida Digital Service.

None of those agencies have been able to stop two decades of fiascos with its large technology projects.

Eight years and $89 million into a failed overhaul of its financial management system, it pulled the plug. Its human resources and state vendor website projects ran tens of millions of dollars over budget and were years late. It spent $5 million on a pet project that was never launched and another $750,000 on a 2016 “cloud computing study” that concluded none of the 931 state programs it examined were ready to be moved into the cloud.

And those aren’t even the state’s more public failures.

Its effort to update the state’s tolling system, known as SunPass was a boondoggle, with nearly all the problems self-inflicted. The state’s contract with Conduent State & Local Solutions ballooned by $71 million. Auditors found the Department of Transportation, which was supposed to supervise Conduent’s work, didn’t assign a qualified person for the role. The state’s information technology agency, led by then-Chief Information Officer Jason Allison, raised critical red flags years before the project launched — then abruptly withdrew its oversight without explanation.

The next day, it was announced that Allison was leaving to become a lobbyist. Conduent was one of the companies he registered to lobby for that year. Allison did not return calls and emails from the Times/Herald.

Even after its completion, the SunPass project was an immediate disaster. Thousands of Floridians were overbilled, costing the state $50 million in lost toll revenue.

The state’s unemployment system was an even worse failure. State officials amended their contract with Deloitte Consulting 17 times — a sign that the state had not properly thought through the project when they put it out to bid. The project was late, $14 million over its original budget and incapable of processing claims when it launched in 2013.

Although state auditors flagged repeated problems with CONNECT in three separate audits leading up to 2019, state officials never meaningfully upgraded the system.

When the pandemic struck this year, CONNECT was immediately crushed by claims. Only Hawaii was worse at paying out claims on time this year. The state has spent tens of millions of dollars to shore up the system.

It took the state weeks to learn that CONNECT’s backup system wasn’t plugged in.

Three months of scandal

In the last three months alone, some of the state’s biggest scandals have been caused by technology breakdowns.

In October, the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation was crippled by “malicious activity.”

Around the same time, the state’s voter registration system went down, prompting a federal lawsuit and an extension of the state’s voter registration deadline. Misconfigured computer servers were to blame.

Then, in early November, someone “hacked” a Department of Health emergency messaging system and sent messages urging employees to speak out about wrongdoing. State police served a search warrant on former department whistleblower Rebekah Jones’ home this month, generating outrage and national headlines.

It turned out that the system wasn’t hacked at all. The department was sharing the same system password across multiple agencies and even posted it online at times — likely violations of the department’s IT policies, which prohibit users from sharing passwords.

The department removed the online postings after Reddit users and reporters alerted officials to it.

National experts say that no state is immune from information technology project failures. But they can be minimized with strong leadership from the governor’s office and coordination between the chief information officer, the Legislature and individual departments.

“What is the best is when there is a view of what should technology look like across the state, and that there are mechanisms to coordinate that,” said Teri Takai, executive director of the Center for Digital Government and a former chief information officer for Michigan and California.

That’s something Florida has so far failed to have. Just this summer, during the height of the outrage over the unemployment system Deloitte created, the Agency for Health Care Administration chose to go with Deloitte for a $135 million Medicaid data project. Yet they didn’t even ask the Department of Economic Opportunity, which manages the unemployment system, for details on their experience working with the company. The decision to go with Deloitte was yet another black eye for DeSantis, who had been publicly trashing the company’s performance since March.

Takai said the pandemic has been a “wake-up call” for every state, and many are scrambling to modernize their technology systems and prioritizing their chief information officers.

In August, DeSantis named former state Rep. Jamie Grant to be the state’s next chief information officer. Grant had an integral role in shaping the responsibilities and role of the state’s new technology agency, having sponsored the bill in the Legislature that created the office. His bill also relaxed the requirements needed to get the job.

He wouldn’t have met the previous qualifications, which included requiring 10 years of “executive-level experience.”

Grant, who did not respond to requests for comment made through the governor’s office, will not be fulfilling the kind of role Bush envisioned for the chief information officer, with broad oversight over projects across state government.

But some experts said he might be in a unique position to be successful anyway, considering his potential to convince his former colleagues in the Legislature of his vision and develop his ties with DeSantis.

“As he would say, he has the governor’s ear,” Takai said. “That’s extremely important.”

Others were skeptical much would change.

“We’re still doing things the way it was done 20, 30 years ago,” said David Taylor, the state’s chief information officer from 2008 to 2012. “Every year we get further and further behind.”

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