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Ring's reboot of Florida IT gains ground after CONNECT mess


Florida is spending about $733 million on technology this year out of a $74 billion budget.

No one person or agency accounts for this specialized and technical spending. It’s spread across numerous state agencies, departments and divisions. When problems happen, as they did with Florida’s $63 million unemployment website CONNECT, there’s no one at the state, like Gov. Rick Scott, who accepts responsibility.

Instead, it’s the vendor who’s to blame.

For Sen. Jeremy Ring, who launched the east coast operations of Yahoo! from his New York City apartment at the dawn of the Internet Age in 1995, this is no way to conduct business.

“We’re a $75 billion business without a chief information officer,” Ring said. “That doesn’t exist in any business, I assure you. Nor should that exist in any governmental entity.”

For the past four to five years, Ring, D-Margate, has pushed legislation to create a new IT agency in hopes it can improve upon the state’s troubled record in launching large scale IT projects.

How bad is it? According to an analysis last year for the Florida House Appropriations, since 2003 the state spent $134 million on IT projects costing more than $10 million that failed or are no longer in use. Another $306 million was spent on cost overruns for projects that are in use.

Take CONNECT. It’s not the dozens of defects have afflicted the project since mid-October that bother Ring. It’s that the project launched without getting tested with external groups before going live for the estimated 230,000 unemployed who depend on the system for their weekly claim checks.

“It’s extraordinary that it wasn’t done,” Ring said. “You have to assume that you will have flaws. You will have bugs. So therefore, you don’t open it all at once. You open it to a small beta group. You identify the flaws and then you fix them. As you do more testing, you’ll see more flaws.”

The Department of Economic Opportunity’s executive director Jesse Panuccio has repeated several times that there was testing of the system and that it was verified by Ernst & Young. But it wasn’t live testing of the system to a small group of outside users, Ring said, making whatever tests they were conducting mostly useless.

“If you’re trying to figure out how to handle 10,000 simultaneous users, you have to do increments of, say, 500,” Ring said. “It’s impossible to detect the bugs until you go live. That it wasn’t done is a serious error. And it’s structural in nature. That’s why you need IT experts.”

Yet in CONNECT’s case, Florida in 2010 hired Tom McCullion from the Gartner Group to specifically manage the project. And it paid him a starting salary of $124,992 to do so.

“(He) could not have been an expert if he didn’t even consider that (CONNECT) needed to be beta tested,” Ring said. “Now maybe someone from above told him. I don’t know if that’s the case. I don’t know. But here I am, and I know enough to be dangerous, and I know you don’t release any enterprise system, that significant, all at once.”

Ring says his bill, SB 928, would avoid such mistakes in the future by ensuring experts would be overseeing large projects. It would create an agency that would oversee all state agency projects over $10 million or more, while setting up management guidelines.

For agencies under the Cabinet, the new agency would have oversight of projects of more than $25 million. It would consolidate data centers into one, while creating a CIO position that is appointed by the governor, and confirmed by the senate. It asks for $5 million this year with $2.9 million every year after. It would pay for 25 positions and be housed under the Department of Management Services, but would answer directly to the governor.

It’s similar to previous legislation that Ring and other senators have been pushing in previous years with one major difference. This year it has a real shot at passing.

“It would have to be because of CONNECT,” Ring said of the bill’s momentum this year. “That’s made a big difference. We’ve seen what happened. But there are also privacy concerns after Target was hacked. If that happened in Florida with a state agency, would we have the expertise to even know we were hacked?”

On Wednesday, Ring’s bill passed the Senate appropriations committee on general government with a 13-0 vote. It has one more committee, appropriations, before heading for a floor vote.

 “As the only large state without a centralized information technology organization, Florida’s failure to properly implement and manage essential technology projects and systems comes at a great cost to the taxpayer,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, in a statement. “This legislation will help our state better coordinate the structure and delivery of information technology systems and provide for better protection of these systems and the data they contain.”

Unlike previous years, the House is supportive of the measure. A House bill that’s similar to Ring’s passed appropriations on Feb. 19 with a 25-0 vote and it got a mention in Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford’s opening day speech on Tuesday as a top priority this session.

“This is long overdue,” Ring told senators on Wednesday. “We have failed in the past on this, but we’ve studied those failures and I think it’s important that we know why we failed, and I don’t think we will this time.”