There’s no question the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity hasn’t been publicly forthcoming about problems with the CONNECT website.
But have DEO’s top officials failed to fully inform its own staff about problems with the $63 million site?
Yep, according to newly leaked documents that show problems with CONNECT system are much more extensive than officials have disclosed.
“The transition to CONNECT has been difficult and I know that, at times, the best you can do is ask claimants to be patient,” says a Dec. 13 email to DEO staffers from spokeswoman Monica Russell, on behalf of agency executive director Jesse Panuccio. “We are working very hard to find solutions to all identified solutions to all identified issues.”
What’s most striking about the e-mail: No concrete solutions are offered. What Russell (on behalf of Panuccio) says is most important is for the continued patience of staffers.
“Please know that I am aware of how hard everyone -- in Tallahassee, in Jacksonville, in Ft. Lauderdale -- is working, and I couldn’t be more appreciative,” the e-mail states. “Please continue to be unfailingly polite, and please continue to support each other as you encounter difficult situations.”
The email, perhaps unintentionally, acknowledges that staffers have been kept in the dark on the true extent of the problems plaguing the website. Apparently, the subject came up during Panuccio’s visit to a DEO office in Orlando earlier this month.
“One of the main concerns I heard centered around internal communications,” stated the Dec. 13 email. “You need to hear more about updates to the system more often so that you can communicate with claimants more effectively. We are going to fix that…We are committed to improving our communications with you by delivering accurate information in a timely manner.”
While sounding like a no-brainer management practice to most, it comes two months after the the launch of the website and is actually at odds with a directive two months ago.
Back then, in a memo that emphasized a more pressing need to withhold information, DEO employees were instructed, in bold, “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.”
Employees were told not to speak to reporters and that any media inquiries be handled by Russell and others at the DEO office of communications. The benefits to that strategy might be running out, however.
Since the Oct. 15 launch of the website, which handles the unemployment benefits for more than 230,000 Floridians, thousands have complained of severe glitches, ranging from an inability for users to log on; confusing status updates that leave recipients in limbo, long delays in claims reviews; and flooded phone lines that have led to long hold times or a complete failure to connect recipients with those who can help. As benefits for thousands will run out at the end of the month, many claimants say they are being driven to desperate measures because of persistent issues.
More than two months after the site’s debut, the problems are so bad that U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, state Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, and former Gov. Charlie Crist, who is challenging Gov. Rick Scott in next year’s election, have all called for investigations.
Meanwhile, media inquiries have hardly been handled by Russell and the DEO’s office of communications. Key documents have been withheld, only later to be discovered later elsewhere. Requests for public records have been stymied by exorbitant charges. For instance, the DEO charged the Times/Herald $1,057 to provide emails over one week for four DEO employees.
“That’s insane,” says Crist.
Panuccio has either been combative or reclusive in dealing with questions about the website.
In his first public comments after the website’s troubled launch, Panuccio told a senate committee that the problems were overblown by the media.
“Some of the press stories about CONNECT have been incomplete and focused on a narrative that is more likely to grab readers than to accurately report facts,” Panuccio said during a Nov. 4 hearing before the Senate’s Commerce and Tourism Committee.
Yet his DEO communications staff haven’t made Panuccio available for interviews. Instead, he has Russell issues statements on his behalf or provides written statements on the DEO website.
Even with this deflection tactic, Panuccio has, of late, acknowledged problems.
Last week, he disclosed for the first time that the website contractor, Deloitte Consulting, paid a $1.5 million “financial restitution” to the state. Deloitte has until Friday to execute all the “corrective action plans”. First agreed to in November, not much information has been made available about this restitution. What’s it for? Why was it agreed to? Asked these questions, Russell didn't provide any answerss, instead referring the Times/Herald to the original agreement.
According to another leaked document, a Monday email to staffers, the CONNECT support page will now be updated each time technicians fix issues.
“The CONNECT Support page will be updated with information on all the defects repaired,” it said.
On Tuesday, technicians fixed 30 defects. Progress? Who knows. But over the weekend, technicians fixed another 19 items.