Opinion: Troubles with Expensive County Computer Acquisition
At last Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting a long overdue update was given on the County’s struggling $5.6 million acquisition of an ERP computer system from Tyler Technologies which is supposed to handle finance, human resources and payroll.
Teri Daly, CAO described the recent computer work and according to Daly it’s 20% complete and the project is on budget and on schedule. Her statement is quite debatable and 20% is a nice, shoot from the hip round number. I’ve seen such numbers pulled out of much darker places. The big problem is that the expensive software still doesn’t do at least three major critical functions and other State legal requirements that the County needs it to and is legally required to have. There are no written guarantees by Tyler Technologies to perform such system modifications.
A couple months ago after the purchase it was disclosed by Joe Harn that this supposed high-end financial software could only handle 4 digit long account numbers and the County was attempting to scrunch down its account numbers to fit into the software. My $49 Quicken program handles account numbers longer than that!
It is apparent that the CAO jumped the gun on this $5.6 million software acquisition instead of doing her homework first which is usually comprised of many much less expensive and warranted needs analysis studies which would have fleshed out the problems of Tyler before committing millions of dollars of Taxpayer money. The recent ERP Charter Report is merely an ex post facto deliberation to make it look as if the County did its homework prior to the investment decision – it didn’t. Daly admitted she doesn’t know much about this technological stuff, as she has a liberal arts type of college education. Perhaps someone should teach her the basics, such as where the Kill Switch is or how to Pull the Plug!
Perhaps partial blame can be shared with a Chief Technology Officer who also moonlights as a D.A. – no conflict of interest there. Systems analysis is normally done before making the software/hardware acquisition to make sure the system will accommodate the County’s needs. It does not usually involve putting the cart before the horse and going into contract for multi-millions and hoping and praying the software will accommodate the County’s needs – that has been a recipe for disaster on too many government projects. One major project failure that comes to mind was the State’s DMV RDBMS in the 90’s that couldn’t handle the transaction volume and ended up wasting $90 million in taxpayer money.
The current California $2 Billion Court System was another prime example that didn't work and recently had to be scrapped after spending oodles of money.
Daly referred to the process as a “dance,” but one has to wonder if it won’t turn into a slam dance and chest bumping with the vendor over system requirements that weren’t properly delineated by the County before awarding the contract to Tyler. The County is basically relying on a single source software vendor to do its systems analysis after going into contract and committing itself to millions – this is a dangerous and backwards way of doing it, because if Tyler’s software won’t meet the County’s needs requirements it’s back to square one with a hefty foregone cost and a lot of finger pointing. Vern Pierson the County DA/Chief Technology Officer leaped from the crowd to take the podium and assure us that everything was on track.
Vern got his MIS (computer) degree back when they were still using mainframes situated above elevated air conditioned floors and software programs were written on punched cardboard cards. It is also apparent from his comments that our DA/CTO is now applying legal intimidation to the higher ups at Tyler to push for project success. Nothing like a little legal intimidation to fix thousands of lines of computer code that don’t deliver what the County requires.
More big round numbers were provided by Daly as to her projected software efficiency gains. Daly claims an efficiency gain of 10% or 27 County positions at $100,000 per employee per year. That’s $2.7 million, but she went on to pull a number out of thin air eluding to potential savings of $3 million to $10 million per year! I thought to myself, yeah, I can count on those numbers when pigs fly! Then the argument came that spending all this money and flying blind was arguably a better solution to averting a catastrophic failure rather than having done her homework in the first place. Then came the County’s CYA “Project Charter” Executive Summary version of the County “Needs Analysis.”
While Daly and Pierson were eager to sign it, Joe Harn, the County Auditor refused to sign. I can’t say I blame Joe, probably not a good idea to stick your neck out and have it taken off by this run away train wreck. Harn went on to state that he has significant concern with the language in the Charter drafted by County Staff and Administration. I trust Joe Harn’s candid comments and he has a very good past record with the County of fiscal prudence and good common sense – something that seems to be lacking with our CAO. When Harn described the Tyler analysis process as “rough” it spoke volumes. Harn also advised to get all Tyler Promises aka change orders in writing – also a good idea.