In his first year as the state’s attorney general, Republican Ken Paxton is finding that one of his predecessor’s biggest projects is turning into one of his biggest headaches.
Paxton’s office is in the midst of discussions with its lead contractor over a six-year-old project to upgrade the technology for the state’s antiquated child support enforcement system. The AG’s office hopes to restructure the project, which is years behind schedule and has seen its price tag grow by more than $70 million.
“Deadlines and milestones are worthless if the end product doesn’t do the job you need it to do,” First Assistant Attorney General Chip Roy said. “Our main focus is on getting a quality system for Texas families and taxpayers.”
More than half of the attorney general’s budget goes to child support enforcement. For years, the agency has prided itself on being the national leader in child support collections.
Millions of parents and thousands of state employees rely on the office’s computer system to handle the complicated and often delicate aspects of managing child support cases, including locating parents, collecting payments and distributing funds to custodial parents.
But the technology rests on a rickety framework that was developed 20 years ago and becomes more unwieldy with every passing year. Agency officials say the system is slow, convoluted and difficult when it comes to training new employees. Simple tasks like removing outdated information in a case file require multiple steps that, under the new computer system, would take place automatically.
In 2009, under Greg Abbott’s leadership, the AG’s office launched a $202 million project to upgrade the system, including a $70 million contract with Accenture to design, develop and implement the project. Child support is a shared responsibility of states and the federal government, so the federal government agreed to pay two-thirds of the project’s costs.
The first deadline for the upgrade came and went in 2012, as those working on the project found that the original plan was underfunded and that the new system could not be easily integrated with the current one. State officials also determined last year that they had underestimated the expected costs for servers to house the new system.
The upgrade is one in a long line of state-run information technology projects that have had trouble meeting their initial timelines and budgets. The development 20 years ago of the current child support enforcement system — handled by Andersen Consulting, which later changed its name to Accenture — came in three years behind schedule and millions of dollars above the initial estimate.
Accenture has also seen high-profile difficulties with large state contracts to manage the Children's Health Insurance Program and run call centers enrolling Texans in food stamps and Medicaid.
Accenture spokesman Joe Dickie said Wednesday that the company was proud of its work so far helping Texas modernize its child support enforcement system.
“Large-scale IT projects are complex in nature and sometimes require adjustments as they go forward,” Dickie said in a statement.
Representatives for Abbott, now governor, did not respond to a request for a comment on the problems with a contract signed under his tenure as attorney general.
During this year’s legislative session, Roy sent two letters to Abbott and several other state leaders warning that an initial review of the project under the office’s new leadership was raising alarm bells.
“In short, the project no longer appears to be ‘on time’ and it appears also to be increasing in budget,” Roy wrote in a letter in March. Despite the concerns, his office did not ask lawmakers for any additional funding for the project beyond the $43 million already included in earlier drafts of the budget, Roy said.
The estimated budget for the system upgrade is now about $275 million, according to a state audit. Of that, $101 million represents Accenture's costs. Much of the rest of the budget goes toward paying for the servers to house the new system, and some goes to augmenting staff and training them on the new system.
Lawmakers added a rider to the 2016-17 budget directing the attorney general’s office to create a steering committee to oversee the project and to report any expected cost overruns or delays to the Legislative Budget Board.
Texas has paid $53.4 million to Accenture related to the project so far, according to Janece Rolfe, communications manager for the agency's child support division. Agency officials said they are in the midst of discussions with the company about changes to the project’s timeline, including possibly rolling out the new system at once instead of in phases.
The new system is needed in part to keep the cost of enforcement from growing dramatically over time as caseloads grow, according to agency officials. Over the last decade, the agency’s staff dedicated to child support enforcement has remained largely unchanged at about 2,700 employees. Yet over that period, child support cases have consistently grown about 5 percent annually, or 5,000 cases a month.
Despite the hiccups, Roy said he believed the project would be a worthwhile endeavor when the current system is finally replaced with something more flexible and user-friendly.
“Every dollar we’re spending, we believe we’re spending the right way to get the right system built,” Roy said.
Disclosure: Accenture is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.