State overlooks past, hires Accenture

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has drawn flak lately over his refusal to grant pardons. But, it turns out, his administration does believe in second chances.

Walker’s Department of Administration has signed a $58.6 million contract with Accenture to implement a massive state information technology project called STAR. Accenture was essentially booted from another state project in 2007.

STAR, which stands for State Transforming Agency Resources, will manage finance, procurement and human resources functions for state agencies. The DOA says the system will cost $253 million over 10 years to implement and operate, a savings of $100 million.

But large-scale IT projects are notoriously unpredictable, and the state’s history with Accenture is checkered.

Accenture, a huge multinational firm specializing in management consulting, technology and outsourcing, was hired by the state Elections Board in 2004 to build a state voter registration system to meet new federal requirements. Back then, Accenture was accused of mismanaging a voter-list project in Florida and state IT workers argued that they could do the job.

How did hiring Accenture work out? The headlines tell the story: “Glitch will hold up registration system” (Associated Press, 9/21/05), “Election fraud plan to miss fall vote” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 8/4/06), “State voting system is further delayed” (Wisconsin State Journal, 2/8/07), “State voter registration software a ‘disaster’ ” (Daily Cardinal, 11/28/07).

When Accenture was eased out, it denied being at fault but agreed to pay back or forego a total of $6 million. It still made $7 million, for a system that was not working two years past the federal government’s original deadline. Accenture was also dumped by four other states that hired it to build similar systems.

Though clearly frustrated with Accenture at the time, former Elections Board head Kevin Kennedy thinks Wisconsin came out okay in the end.

“We kept what they had and made it work,” says Kennedy, now director and general counsel for the state Government Accountability Board, which absorbed the Elections Board. He says that, no matter who is hired, “large-scale IT projects require a great deal of internal resources to monitor progress and make sure things stay on track.”

But Mike McCabe, executive director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, says the state’s decision to hire Accenture, which his group opposed, amounted to “pouring money down a rathole.” He thinks taxpayers have every right to be concerned about Accenture’s role on the STAR project.

“Accenture seems to be very good at getting state contracts,” McCabe says, “but it doesn’t seem very good at delivering the goods.” Some Democratic state lawmakers have also raised concerns.

Accenture’s proposal scored higher than one from another bidder in a process subjected to outside review. DOA spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis says the state is requiring the company to use its “best staff” for the project, adding, “The lessons that Accenture has learned in other projects will serve this project well to help avoid any challenges associated with an IT project of this size.”

And in fact, Accenture was a subcontractor on an $81 million University of Wisconsin System project that came online in 2011, with implementation completed on time and under budget, says university spokesman David Giroux. An earlier attempt by another contractor was abandoned at a $28 million loss.

Accenture spokesman Joe Dickie defends the company’s work on the voter registration project, saying it “developed a system that has been successfully used in many Wisconsin local and statewide elections.” He says Accenture has thousands of projects at any given time and “is known for collaborating closely with clients to reach the best possible outcome” when problems arise.

But while it has benefited from the willingness of others to overlook failings, Accenture has not always done so itself. In 2009, it became the first major sponsor to dump golfer Tiger Woods over his alleged marital infidelity. Workers reportedly prowled Accenture’s New York office, tearing down Tiger posters.

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