OP-ED | Private Sector Goes to Space, Public Sector Wishes It Had Some
For the first time in history, a spacecraft conceived, designed, built, and operated wholly in the private sector blasted off into the heavens en route to the International Space Station this week with a new era of spaceflight along for the journey.
Meanwhile back here on earth, Connecticut’s Department of Social Services (DSS) tried to get some space - with disastrous results.
It turns out that DSS, an organization of nearly 2,000 state employees responsible for spending $5 billion in tax dollars each year, runs on computer software that was built near the beginning of the Space Shuttle era. An attempt to add space to the system brought the whole thing crashing down:
“Computer problems … are hampering the agency’s ability to process new applications and eligibility renewals for medical coverage, food aid and other programs,” . . . “Technicians are working to restore the department’s massive and antiquated eligibility management system — known since the 1980s as EMS — after it went out of service this week.”
DSS wasn’t alone in their troubles. The Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) let it be known this week that they currently have no idea how many of their cases are closed. The Commission’s spokesman, Jim O’Neill, was quoted saying, “We get 1,500 to 2,000 complaints a year . . . And I can’t access them… Now I can’t find out a damn thing.”
The episodes raise a few red flags.
On a functional level, the interim solution to the DSS computer problems was to tell vendors to supply services now and then sort the eligibility out later. You might call this the D-SNAP solution.
“Here’s what could happen to such clients, and what the DSS is trying to do to help, Dearborn said: “You go to the pharmacy with your medical card to pick up your prescription and the pharmacist says, ‘our check with the eligibility system says your coverage is not active.’” Or, he said, the client might go to the doctor and the same thing happens.
To help such clients, “we’re communicating with the providers and pharmacies to say, essentially, serve the client/patient and we will arrange for payment,” Dearborn said.
The bigger and brighter red flag, of course, marks the crushing backwardness that characterizes the state’s technology infrastructure.
It isn’t like no one knew it was dysfunctional. Things were so bad in 1997 that the state’s first Chief Information Officer, Gregg “Rock” Regan proposed turning over development and maintenance to private vendors. Regan was blunt with his assessment: “IT is not a core competency for the state.”
The plan, purported to save more than $50 million, met with frenzied opposition from the state employees’ unions. Then-Gov. John Rowland pulled the plug on the project in July 1999 after negotiations between the administration and the vendor broke down.
Rock Regan later noted that his effort hadn’t been a waste: “We learned the good, the bad and the ugly” about the state’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Ugly seems to describe even lesser efforts at fixes, such as the attempt to overhaul the state’s equally out-of-date CT.gov portal that met with catastrophic failure. “In 2005, state officials began a project to overhaul ct.gov and by  had spent about $600,000 on the upgrade to a system that hosts more than 90 percent of all executive branch websites. [In fall 2010], the decision was made to pull the plug on the project.”
Solving the problem is a matter of simple economics. In the private sector, one goal of investing in capital infrastructure is to reduce labor costs. Economists would call that shift the marginal rate of technical substitution. As evidenced in the Regan-era fight, though, and the dozens of others like it, that suggestion elicits howls of objection.
As long as the costs of unpredictable and relatively short-lived system failures are exceeded by the gigantic costs associated with replacement, it is cheaper to keep fighting the maintenance battle. This fact alone demonstrates the weakness of the argument for keeping the same labor cost structure and adding capital investment but doesn’t seem to have deterred its use.
Until then, the muddling along will continue.
Heath W. Fahle is the Policy Director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy and a former Executive Director of the Connecticut Republican Party. Contact Heath about this article by visiting www.heathwfahle.com