July 18, 2006
We're stuck with Accenture

The top lawyer for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission says that yeah, things do suck with Accenture, but they don't quite suck enough to fire them.

"Termination is always a pretty severe remedy, and it's the one that you would hope to invoke as a very last resort," [Steve] Aragon, who is preparing recommendations for Executive Commissioner Albert Hawkins, said in an interview.

"I can't say that I've seen anything that represents something that in my opinion would require termination of the contract for cause."

My view on this is pretty clear, but I can accept that not everyone sees it my way. It would be nice to know under what conditions Aragon and Hawkins would consider terminating that contract, however. The threat of termination is meaningless if there isn't something that can and will trigger it. And if grounds for termination are not already spelled out in the contract (as they should be), then I'd say now is the time for all parties to agree on what's broken, how and when it will be fixed, and just what exactly happens in the event that it stays broken.

"It doesn't take a very detailed or legal analysis to see that Accenture has not delivered on what they said they were going to deliver," said Mike Gross, vice president of the 12,000-member Texas State Employees Union, which includes workers who have lost jobs in the outsourcing.

After the private group, formally known as Texas Access Alliance, launched the pilot version of its enrollment system in Travis and Hays counties in January, applicants for Medicaid, food stamps and welfare experienced long hold times and spoke with call center operators who couldn't answer their questions. Hawkins has delayed the statewide rollout of the system, which replaces some enrollment offices with call centers, until problems with training and technology are addressed.

The commission also is paying $1,800 retention bonuses to 1,000 state workers.

Here's something else to mull over. The thing that the state has that Accenture does not is a large pool of trained, experienced employees who know how to get the job done effectively and efficiently. Even I will agree that given enough time and money, Accenture will eventually have such an asset. But while we're waiting for them to get to that point, the state's asset - its experienced employees - will gradually deteriorate, as those people move on to other jobs or retire. There will come a point where terminating the contract is no longer a viable option because the state will not be in a position to revert back to what it had been doing before.

Obviously, if we get to that point, we'll be truly stuck. Sure, we can sue Accenture and maybe get our money back, but that won't help the people who've been harmed by this exercise, nor will it get us back to a state of having trained and competent employees in place to help those people. That's why we need to know, and soon, what the failure conditions are.

State officials couldn't immediately put a price tag on unexpected costs the state has incurred because of the enrollment system's problems. They plan to negotiate reductions in some of the fees paid to the contractor, Aragon said.

When a call center representative screens an applicant for public assistance, for example, the state pays a fee, about 2 cents.

State officials originally estimated they'd save $646 million over five years through outsourcing. They don't have an updated estimate, but Aragon said he is confident there will be some savings.

Funny how the bad numbers always lag behind the good ones, isn't it? And I must say, Aragon's continued optimism is touching.

Commission spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman said that despite the problems, Texas' 3 million public assistance recipients will have more options under the new system, which allows them to apply for programs via fax, Internet, mail or in person, instead of just in person.

Um, we didn't need to privatize to add these options for THHSC beneficiaries. Last I checked, pretty much every government office had fax and Internet capabilities. Adding that into the previously existing workflow would (or at least should) not have been a big deal. Certainly, it would have been vastly easier and cheaper to accomplish than this huge outsourcing effort.

Anyway. For further reading, there's this Chron editorial from yesterday, which stops short of calling for termination of the contract now, and Father John, who knows well how this system should be run. Check 'em out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 18, 2006 to Budget ballyhoo | TrackBack

If my understanding of how consulting firms like Accenture work is correct, they'll never have a body of experienced people; they rotate cheap college graduates through until the ccg's move on to other jobs. Very like the Army's personnel policy in Vietnam, actually.

Posted by: Greg Morrow on July 18, 2006 12:59 PM

Today's new song parody: Accenturate the Positive...

Posted by: Michael on July 18, 2006 1:18 PM

This is your Republican-lead govt in action, folks.

Feed the rich, screw the poor--what else should we expect from these corrupt clowns?

Posted by: Locutor on July 19, 2006 10:03 AM