State may create IT department just to deal with unemployment website

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Florida may create its own IT department to deal exclusively with its consistently troubled $63 million unemployment website.

Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Jesse Panuccio spoke to the Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee Wednesday to provide legislators an update about the glitch-plagued CONNECT site.

Technology consultants and the U.S. Department of Labor will be called in to examine the problem, reports Jim Turner of the News Service of Florida.

Sen. Jeremy Ring floated the idea  to Senate President Don Gaetz of developing a state Internet technology department, saying he has plans to prepare legislation in the next week or so.

“We’re a $70 billion business without a chief information officer. We have no IT abilities whatsoever in this state. We can’t be surprised that this is the case,” said Ring, a former executive for Yahoo. “We need to have experts if we’re going to release projects of this size.”

Creating a Department of State Technology is not a new concept. The idea first came about during the 2013 legislative session when the Senate unanimously supported an IT bill; it eventually died in the budget conference.

That proposal called for $5 million to hire 24 full-time workers during the first year of operation, according to a Senate analysis.

Ring’s proposal comes as the Department of Economic Opportunity imposes continuing fines of $15,000 per day against Deloitte Consulting, the firm responsible for the CONNECT system. The DEO is also holding back $3 million in payments to the Minnesota-based company for failing to provide a “fully functioning” system. 

Florida has begun to hire as many as 330 workers over the next couple of months to help process unemployment-benefit applications, costing an estimated $164,700 weekly. Federal administrative funds will be used, in addition to money recouped from Deloitte, Panuccio told the News Service.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson announced on Tuesday that he requested U.S. Department of Labor staff to go to Florida by week’s end and monitor CONNECT’s problems. A 20 percent decrease in unemployment claims was reported since the system went live Oct. 15, according to federal numbers.

Gov. Rick Scott criticized Nelson over the federal intervention, but Panuccio maintained his department’s sole focus is getting the system functioning.

“What we’re doing right now, the most important thing we’re focused on, is every possible way to get things fixed and getting claims paid,” Panuccio told the Senate committee. “Down the road we’ll continue to discuss ways we can continue to recoup costs.”

Panuccio’s comments were not the same as what he said Nov. 4 to the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee, when he assured them his office would fix “glitches” in the new system by the end of the year.

On Wednesday, News Service reports, the DEO finalized a $365,000 deal with Capgemini, a Paris-based consulting firm, to examine CONNECT.

“Deloitte’s stabilization of the adjudication function and other systems did not occur as we had expected,” Panuccio added.

Deloitte insists they completed the work as outlined in its contract, and CONNECT exceeded the capacity of the system it replaced. Panuccio disagrees.

“Deloitte does not dispute the list of defects we’ve given them. They don’t dispute that those things are broken. What they will dispute is how we characterize it under the contract,” Panuccio said. “The point is those pieces of functionality still aren’t working.”

Prior to the meeting, Sen. Geraldine Thompson and Rep. Lori Berman demanded Deloitte refund money to taxpayers.

Some people have spent more than nine weeks trying to get help to prepare for unemployment checks that are as much as $275 a week, said Thompson. She added that there were more than $20 million in denied benefits due to problems with CONNECT, as estimated by the non-profit National Employment Law Project.

“For someone who is unemployed, who has no means of income, this is the difference between hanging on to a lifeline and actually being pushed into the ranks of those who are impoverished,” said Thompson.

She also noted Deloitte paid $4.5 million in 2012 for delays to the state system, in addition to other unrelated problems in rollouts of other multimillion-dollar government websites in California, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

CONNECT had been in the planning stages since 2009, as the replacement for the 30-year-old system jobless Floridians used to claim weekly benefits, request information and monitor accounts.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.