UW System computer project sees delays, more costs

2009-06-17T00:00:00Z UW System computer project sees delays, more costsThe Associated Press The Associated Press
June 17, 2009 12:00 am  • 

MADISON - A second attempt by the University of Wisconsin System to install a new computer payroll program is millions of dollars over budget and a year behind schedule. Moreover, a company fired over subpar work creating Wisconsin's statewide voter database in 2007 is working as a subcontractor on the project.

The system's top budget official, Tom Anderes, told the Board of Regents this month that planning for the project alone is now expected to cost $12 million. A year ago, officials had said planning would cost $1.6 million and implementation would begin that fall. In February, they raised the planning budget to $8 million and said it would last through this summer.

Anderes told the regents that the university system would seek approval from them in September for a budget and timeline for the remainder of the project, which has always been expected to take years.

University spokesman David Giroux said Tuesday that planning was taking longer and costing more, but said it was because the project is more complex than anticipated.

"The project requires much more extensive planning and analysis than we originally predicted and we are committed to a very thorough planning process," he said. "We know that is key to success."

He also said the subcontractor, Accenture, was playing a limited role and was well-qualified for the work.

The university has long wanted to replace the aging computer system that pays its 60,000 employees and keeps track of benefits and other human resources information. The program, developed in 1975, is written in a computer language so obsolete that few programmers know how to fix it.

A first attempt to replace it with Lawson Software was scrapped in 2006 after years of work and a cost of $28.4 million. The project, a public relations embarrassment for the university, was doomed by poor project leadership and planning, bureaucratic infighting and technical complexity.

The university started planning for a second attempt in 2007, this time using Oracle's PeopleSoft system.

Giroux said earlier planning budget estimates and timelines had to be changed because "we did not have the full picture of how complex this project would be." He noted a state audit in 2007 of troubled information technology projects identified inadequate planning as the source of most problems.

CIBER, Inc., a Colorado-based contractor hired for the first stage of planning, identified far more gaps between the software's capabilities and the system's current business practices than anticipated, Giroux said. That prompted the university to hire Chicago-based Huron Consulting Group to devise a blueprint for how to implement the changes.

Huron is helping decide which business practices the university campuses must change to use the new system and what modifications should be made to the software to support them. Huron in turn has hired the consulting firm Accenture to help write the computer code, Giroux said.

The Wisconsin Elections Board cut ties with Accenture in December 2007 after being frustrated with its performance in developing a statewide voter registration database. The company was contracted to deliver a fully functional product by March 2006 but never did so, despite receiving about $9 million.

Under a legal settlement, Accenture paid the board back $4 million, waived nearly $2 million the board owed the company and turned over its software code. Its contract was ended three years early.

Giroux said Accenture employees who specialize in writing the computer code used by PeopleSoft were working on the payroll project.

"People were very confident they have the expertise to play that narrowly defined role," he said.

Accenture spokesman Peter Soh declined to comment.

About 40 university employees are also working on the project.

Giroux said stopping the project now would waste the money spent on planning and risk the failure of the current system, which is struggling to accommodate new demands.

The university is preparing to make deep budget cuts, freeze salaries and furlough employees to help balance the state budget. UW President Kevin Reilly has said he is worried that the "increasingly rickety" computer program may be unable to track the 16 days of furloughs employees are required to take over the next two years.

"That's one of the things that keeps me up at night," he said.

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