Glitchy state software system leads to botched payments for foster care providers

The Tennessee Family and Child Tracking System replaced a dozen legacy applications

A Tennessee official is blaming inadequate training, ignored warnings and unwise technology choices for ongoing problems with an installed software system used by the state Department of Children's Services.

The Tennessee Family and Child Tracking System (TFACTS), which was installed in late 2010, replaced some 12 legacy systems at the DCS, according to an audit report released last week by State Comptroller Justin Wilson.

Dynamics Research Corp. was the project's primary systems integrator, with DRC using Compuware's OptimalJ toolkit for J2DEE development on the project. Wilson's office began investigating the "troubled implementation" last June, "after complaints surfaced of foster care providers not receiving timely payments," Wilson wrote in a letter to Mark Emkes, state commissioner of finance and administration.

The investigation followed a number of reports on the problems published last year in the Tennessean newspaper, which first took note of Wilson's audit report.

Wilson's report found that many payments were in fact late,"and there were also duplicate payments and problems with reporting."

A review of payments made through TFACTS during a pilot implementation period "noted that there were no payments to residential providers made during the month of June 2010, and that of the US$6.9 million in services provided in June 2010, less than $1 million had been paid by the end of the pilot period, August 31, 2010," according to the report.

A report released by DCS' internal auditor in March 2011 found that 182 duplicate payments, constituting $558,000, were made between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2010, according to the audit. "'The report stated, "It appeared that the majority of payments were the result of manual payments to Private (residential) providers when TFACTS went live statewide."

After TFACTS was installed, contracts didn't always carry over correctly from the previous system, leaving some providers unpaid. "To avoid creating a hardship on the providers, the department made manual payments based on account balances submitted from the providers," the report states. "After making the payments, the department recognized that it had issued duplicate payments and began the process of recouping them."

Wilson's investigation also determined that DCS officials "disregarded obvious and known problems with the system, as well as the recommendation of an independent reviewer, when they made the decision to implement the system statewide" in late 2010, according to the audit.

An analysis conducted in August 2010 by a consulting firm concluded that the statewide implementation of TFACTS was "materially flawed" and should not proceed to a full implementation given the system's "current instability," according to the audit.

The report noted that the system had 182 Priority 1 and Priority 2 defects as of mid-August 2010, prior to go-live, and the number subsequently skyrocketed after the implementation, rising 360 percent to 855 such defects by Sept. 15 of last year, according to the report.

Other problems cited by Wilson center on core technical decisions made by project staff.

In April 2008, the state signed a contract with Dynamics Research as the project's primary systems integrator, according to the audit. But just a month later, Compuware decided to discontinue OptimalJ, according to the audit.

"Nonetheless, the steering committee, though aware of the problem, chose to allow DRC to proceed using OptimalJ," the report states. "This was a crucial, long-term decision since the software provides tools that allow the programmers to accurately link parts of the program together to execute commands consistently."

"The use of an unsupported development environment increases the risk of operational dysfunction, fraud, waste, and abuse," it adds.

Wilson issued a number of recommendations to DCS officials, including that they review all available documentation and determine whether the TFACTS system "meets the demands that were envisioned at the outset of the project and that were promised by the vendor."

But Wilson, who referred to problems with other state computer systems in recent months, is also calling for an overhaul of the way the state runs future software projects.

"Our primary concern moving forward is not necessarily with the TFACTS system itself, but with the overall approach used for system development and implementation," Wilson said in his letter. The state should adopt a more centralized approval and monitoring process for IT projects, he added. "Lessons learned in past implementation failures should be leveraged to reduce the risk of future failures."

DCS officials issued a response to Wilson's audit, which was appended to the main document.

"The department concurs in part with the Comptroller's Audit findings and recognizes that the TFACTS does have functionality that needs improvement," particularly with regard to financial management, but "the majority" of features outside of that realm are working, the response states.

In addition, many of the pre-launch defects cited by the audit report had been resolved before the full launch, it adds. Project staff have also completed eight builds, fixing some 420 defects, since September, it added.

DCS also defended the decision to use OptimalJ. Tennessee officials are working with peers in Ohio, who used OptimalJ to build a similar system with "no issues," the response added. "DCS has established a strong working relationship to share designs and code from both systems moving forward to reduce the development time to repair / enhance the respective systems."

After learning that OptimalJ was being discontinued, DCS determined that it would cost more to rewrite TFACTS with another tool than to stick with the original plan, DCS said.

"Initial indications are that the OptimalJ tool itself is not deficient, but the deficiency lies in how it was used (or not used in some cases) to develop the TFACTS models and code," according to DCS. "Using a different tool will not overcome the fact that DCS staff does not have the skill sets or experience in developing and maintaining the TFACTS application in a Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition (J2EE) environment."

With help from Compuware, DCS staff has made significant strides in the past two months building their OptimalJ skills, and many other efforts are underway to stabilize and improve TFACTS, DCS' response added.

Compuware and Dynamics Research couldn't immediately comment on the audit's findings.

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris's e-mail address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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