Tue
Oct 9 2012
12:14 pm
By: R. Neal  shortURL

WBIR has this report from the Tennessean regarding problems with the DCS computer system. The state is spending nearly $4 million to fix hundreds of problems in a system built in 2007 at a cost of $27 million. According to the article, the system can't even produce caseload reports. That seems pretty basic. More troubling is the fact that caseworker searches fail to turn up past history of family abuse.

My first thought was that $27 million sounds like an awful lot for what should be a pretty straightforward system. But looking further, the requirements can be fairly complex when you consider all the functionality such as intake, case management, foster home placement and payments, court records and reports, federal compliance, etc. etc., and that all of it needs to be linked together by family and household for caseworkers and administrators to have a complete picture.

In fact, California is looking to spend up to $1 billion to replace a system built in the 90's on a mainframe CICS/DB2/COBOL architecture that was obsolete when the project started.

One of Tennessee's problems may have been selecting a defense contractor to build the system. According to a company fact sheet, they appear to be phasing out their state and local government support business to concentrate on their core defense and homeland security business. State and local government support is no longer mentioned on their website (which, ironically, was down earlier this morning) as an industry they serve.

You wonder if any of the people who worked on TFACTS are still there, or were even qualified when they were. The company's financials don't look very good either, so the state probably shouldn't expect much in the way of financial recovery.

You also have to wonder why Bredesen signed off on this, given that he made his fortune in the software business and presumably knows something about it. Further, the system requirements would seem fairly consistent from state to state, particularly with regard to federal compliance, so it's a little puzzling why there isn't a standard off-the-shelf solution that can be tailored for unique state requirements instead of states spending hundreds of millions on custom solutions.

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Tamara Shepherd's picture

*

In a related matter, I remain concerned (okay, and "rankled") that Knox County Schools still can't produce a middle-school or high-school report card reflecting a student's cumulative GPA even for the current year--much less for the three or four years students spend in middle then high schools--AND that software used to produce students' report cards is not integrated with the software used to produce students' permanent transcripts, causing Central Office staff to sit around like Tibetan monks manually keying data from the one software component into the other component and resulting in an unacceptably high margin of human error--to which one of my own students has already fallen prey.

(Yes, I know that was a long, convoluted sentence. It was a long, convoluted process I was trying to convey...)

R. Neal's picture

software used to produce

software used to produce students' report cards is not integrated with the software used to produce students' permanent transcripts, causing Central Office staff to sit around like Tibetan monks manually keying data from the one software component into the other component

That's pretty ridiculous. Doesn't the county have an IT department?

KC's picture

In the same subject area,

In the same subject area, someone should look at DHS and VIP.

Min's picture

I have a friend in state government...

...and he has been complaining for 20 years about how the state can't manage to cobble together a decent computer system. Part of the problem is that the state tries to upgrade the system piecemeal, which means that there are all kinds of compatibility problems and nonfunctionality at implementation, which just adds money to the cost that could and should have been spent upfront.

R. Neal's picture

I've heard similar complaints

I've heard similar complaints from someone in state government who has had to deal with a mission critical system over the years.

In my geezerly old opinion, it's not just state governments, it's everywhere. Application software and the system environments are getting too complex and expensive to manage. Developers would rather build games for smartphones, and make more money.

Tamara Shepherd's picture

*

That's pretty ridiculous. Doesn't the county have an IT department?

It does.

My info, though--from a former school board member--is that the report card/transcript disconnect arose after the board awarded a no-bid contract to write the subject software to the brother of a Central Office employee.

I think I've mentioned previously that this is why honor societies in KCS elementary and middle schools follow an informal practice of admitting for membership only those students with "all As and Bs," rather than the national honor societies' formal guidelines of "minimum 3.5 cumulative GPA."

KCS can't calculate such--without devoting hundreds of manhours to manually crunching the tens of thousands of related student report cards, anyway.

My younger student was initially passed over for membership in his middle school's society for this reason. By virtue of his having earned a single C in a single class for a single grading period, his 6th and 7th grade report cards were tossed in the "reject" pile.

The consequence was that my student, who actually had a 3.8 cumulative GPA while enrolled in advanced coursework in every academic area, was passed over, while other students with cumulative GPAs as low as 3.5 while enrolled in standard coursework were admitted!

I've known many, many students over the years who were cheated out of the honor they'd earned due to this software snafu--and I've told Dr. Elizabeth Alves in Central Office as much, too.

(Postscript: My younger child was admitted into his middle school's society, but only after I produced ALL of his middle school report cards (which I'd saved and which every parent should), documenting that his grades surpassed the qualifying criteria outlined on the national chapter's website. School-level staff were quite apologetic, in fact. It was then that I first came to understand WHY school-level staff were hamstrung as they are in their attempts to "screen" student report cards for society inductees.)

If anybody's interested, I can advise on how to go about getting accurate and complete student transcripts for your matriculating student's college admission packets, too?

(Preview: We can't just assume that they'll be accurate and complete...)

Tamara Shepherd's picture

*

Another interesting computer-related tale concerns the two years in a row that KCS had no earthly idea who their high school valedictorians and salutatorians were.

Metulj has heard it already--and former KNS local editor David Keim wanted to go with a story, too, but his supervisors nixed it.

Just lemee know. I gotta few Central Office horror stories...

R. Neal's picture

Well, this discussion was

Well, this discussion was supposed to be about the state DCS system. Maybe you should start another topic about KCS computer systems?

Tamara Shepherd's picture

*

This is true.

Mine were stories related to governments and their computer systems, though?

Oh, well. I've gotta run!

:-)

R. Neal's picture

Tamara, I was serious about

Tamara, I was serious about your KCS grading system being worthy of its own topic. Not knowing anything about the two systems, the architecture, whether they use a proprietary database, etc., though, it's hard to say why this couldn't be automated.

We have a situation right now with a big federal agency that requires redundant data entry via one means of reporting because they don't provide a supported interface to import data already captured by our application. We reversed engineered a workaround (along with some other vendors, apparently), but they are reluctant to support it. They have another reporting mechanism which we also provide an interface to that they do support and that eliminates duplicate data entry and provides a more streamlined workflow, but it is overkill for some of our smaller customers. So I'm not sure who's lame here, but I don't feel like it's us.

fischbobber's picture

Pertinent

It's hard not to talk about crony capitalism, corporate welfare, and the (nod nod wink wink) good buddy system when talking about data base management in the public sector.

It goes from DCS to education, to resource management, to jails and our system of managing virtually all aspects of our society's common interests.

My Dad spent his entire career as systems designer, most of it in the public sector, and, like Tamara, I've got s few stories.

Your initial point, which was that the DCS system is a disgrace, is spot on. Unfortunately it is the rule rather than the exception. It's what happens when you farm out government work to the private sector. Their interest is generating more business, not performing the task at hand.

bizgrrl's picture

It's what happens when you

It's what happens when you farm out government work to the private sector.

I guess that is possible. However, why did they choose a defense contractor? Maybe no other private software development companies wanted the job and it should have been brought inhouse. At this point it is hard to say.

On thing I learned through the years when large entities (private business or government) contract out systems development, it is really hard to pin them (the large entities) down on requirements. Lots of little hands in the pie. Project creep is massive and has to be allow for when bidding for the job.

I wonder if there is a state out there with a good system that other states should be using.

fischbobber's picture

http://www.drc.com/

(link...)

I may undertake the research on this one, but upon first glance calling this company a "defense contractor" would be somewhat Orwellian. It would appear at first glance that they are a personnel agency and that by providing a solution with 5 million lines of code they were merely guaranteeing themselves a steady maintenance fee for fixing "glitches" for years to come.

It would appear that the big mistake was not knowing what they were trying to do or fix to begin with. This is a common disconnect between systems designers and end users.

R. Neal's picture

500 million. Which seems

500 million. Which seems incredible. As in not credible.

metulj's picture

Ah, I've seen that trick

Ah, I've seen that trick before. Folks count the lines of the code that makes up libraries they call, even if they did not write the library.

In reverse: I taught a Perl class where a student was required to code a text parsing script that could take an input of a word list, open a CSV, compare that list to a column in the CSV, and replace the correlative words that were different in each row as they occurred. The rule was that it could be no more than 150 lines of code. One person did it on the command line, which was one of the most awesome things I had ever seen (I kept it for myself to use later). One student, who repeatedly emailed me over and over and over about the project, got it in at 149 lines of code. Another pulled the "count library code trick" in reverse by burying a library call in the code by, get this, writing a parser that parsed a comment that looked like gobbledy-gook but was actually the library call and the library's built-in function to do my assignment. The parser returned the what was needed and he used that on his merry way. Pretty awesome.

OK. Way off topic.

R. Neal's picture

A banking system I worked on

A banking system I worked on and managed for a while had about 3 million lines of code across two platforms. I suppose if you counted all the included code and called libraries, you could get it up to about 30 million lines of compiled code or maybe more, not counting comments. Not sure, never measured it. That was to run an entire bank. The R&D team had a peak of about 30+ developers at any given time, with a payroll of about $3 million max.

Urban legend says there are about 50 million lines of code in Windows 7. Linux has about 15 million.

gonzone's picture

Perl is very cool that way

Perl is very cool that way [and so is Larry Wall.]

That you taught a Perl class now raises your esteem in my view. I bow in your general direction.

Rachel's picture

On thing I learned through

On thing I learned through the years when large entities (private business or government) contract out systems development, it is really hard to pin them (the large entities) down on requirements. Lots of little hands in the pie. Project creep is massive and has to be allow for when bidding for the job.

Change that to "when ANYBODY EMBARKS ON a systems development project, it is really hard to pin them down on requirements."

At least that was my experience, back in the years when I was a developer. A lot of times they need help in thinking that through. Other times, as bizgrrl points out, there are too many fingers in the pie - or at least too many fingers not agreeing with one another.

The sad thing is that many developers don't really know how to approach getting the requirements straight before they jump into progamming. The former is, IMO, a higher level skill.

TVA, shortly before I left, exacerbated this problem by demoting all the non-supervisory systems analysts to programmers (and cutting their pay).

R. Neal's picture

I've seen this, too. Whether

I've seen this, too. Whether internal or contracted, developers tend to get "everybody's" requirements and try to throw them into a big pot, stir it, and get something out the door that satisfies "everybody."

They often don't spend enough time identifying what's mission critical and most important to the most important stakeholders v. what would be "nice to have." That's what a good analyst does. Programmers, not so much. How many ads have we seen for "analyst/programmer?" That's an oxymoron (with emphasis on "moron").

The first banking software company I worked for had a job requirement that anyone hired by the company, from EVP to sales rep to analyst to programmer to receptionist, had to have previously worked for a bank. The idea was that the entire company would at least be somewhat familiar with what our customers were talking about. At first I thought it was a stupid requirement (even though I had worked for a bank) and that technicians could be taught what they needed to know about the business to implement it in code. I eventually learned how wrong that was.

On the other hand, it has occurred to me over the years that sometimes you can listen to "user requirements" all day long, but until you threw something out there for them to actually use you would never find out what it is they were really trying to tell you.

I believe Google calls it "innovate, iterate."

Which sometimes works and is probably great for a search engine or a mobile phone game app, but not so much when the lives of kids are at stake.

bizgrrl's picture

On the other hand, it has

On the other hand, it has occurred to me over the years that sometimes you can listen to "user requirements" all day long, but until you threw something out there for them to actually use you would never find out what it is they were really trying to tell you.

I've encountered that many times as well. One thing very helpful is to have a good database that can be modified as the system grows.

Opinari's picture

Analyst v. Programmer

They often don't spend enough time identifying what's mission critical and most important to the most important stakeholders v. what would be "nice to have." That's what a good analyst does. Programmers, not so much. How many ads have we seen for "analyst/programmer?" That's an oxymoron (with emphasis on "moron").

I wish more people would figure this out. I serve in both roles, and both are different, yet clients/businesses/PMOs want one person to be both. It shouldn't work that way.

As an aside, I'm impressed by the number of current and former information technology professionals that post on this site. Keeps me coming back to the next discussion topic.

Pam Strickland's picture

I learned of similar problems

I learned of similar problems in another state department a few weeks ago when I tried to get statistics about food stamp recipients from the Department of Human Services It took two weeks for to get numbers that I expected any good administration would have at the tip of their fingers -- what is the average monthly benefit? There were some other such questions. I was appalled at the delay.

KC's picture

DHS runs a system called

DHS runs a system called ACCENT (I think the A stands for ancient) that it got or bought from Ohio some years ago.

It was supposed to get new system called VIP that was supposed to make processing and approving/denying cases easier.

After, I don't know, 7 years (maybe longer) of adjusting and changing and working out the kinks (supposedly), the state ditched it.

The cost? I heard somewhere in the tens of millions.

The ACCENT program collects a lot of information for the bureaucrats in Washington.

Need an average monthly benefit?

Since Food Stamps is basically a federal program (the feds pay about 95% of it), DC is more likely to have the info you're looking for instead of Nashville.

fischbobber's picture

Data base management

The two standards that I'm aware of are Wal-Mart's inventory management Data-Base and the UPS database. The last I heard the UPS system was the gold standard because it allows users to go in the data base and design and pull reports as needed. The problem is that the computer guys don't know what reports are truly relevant and people that know what is relevant don't know how to design reports. It's still pretty cool that they designed the thing around the idea that they could surround it with smart people in the future and have a competitive advantage though.

Michael's picture

User Requirements

When it comes to design, be it information or otherwise, I've found that most people can't easily tell you what they want, but can quickly tell you what they don't want, once presented with it.
~m.

fischbobber's picture

A quick apology

I didn't mean to take the discussion down a side road, but it is becoming clear that what I understood to be true about systems management in the public sector, likely is.

The irony of the situation is that stability is appealing to many people in the systems management field and the states could likely save quite a bit of money by using in house people and treating them fairly.

Otherwise that giant sucking sound you hear of your taxes and state contracts going to the best grant writers and not the people that are actually best for the job will likely continue. Corporate welfare rules.

KC's picture

Otherwise that giant sucking

Otherwise that giant sucking sound you hear of your taxes

I don't hear a sucking sound since there is no soound in space.

I just see a black hole.

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