very specific contract with the HHSC.

"The challenge from our perspective was that the contract vehicle was very detailed and prescriptive," he said. "It was very inflexible."

According to Flood's report, the HHSC built the call centers into its plans with the federal government so it wouldn't have to start a separate approval process for the call centers.

"We spent a lot of money on the application, so we just didn't want to throw it away," said Gary Gumbert, the HHSC's chief information officer. "Why go out and have to go through certification again? It's a waste of money."

Development of the TIERS program itself was no longer the sole factor in the changeover; the switch to call centers became the agency's driving force.

The first call centers were scheduled to open in late January 2006 - a pace that became a problem when TIERS wouldn't cooperate with another program slated to power the call centers, according to Flood's report. Instead of pushing back the schedule to allow more time for getting the programs working together, managers stuck with the original timetable and had employees enter enrollment data into two programs at once.

By that time, however, fewer people who knew SAVERR were working the cases - hundreds of staff members who used SAVERR for years took new jobs when the HHSC announced that call centers would replace their offices.

The low cost of operating and staffing phone bays rather than lots of small local offices was one of the call center plan's most attractive parts. The Legislature originally hoped to save hundreds of millions of dollars by switching to the call centers.

In practice, however, losing that much institutional memory may have come at a heavy cost. Flood said that even as complicated as data entry became, the old staff picked it up more easily. "The amount of training was different for the contractor staff who were brought on in great numbers," he said, "but had almost no background knowledge."

Gumbert said getting staff - both new and old - comfortable with the new program, when some had been using SAVERR for 30 years, has been a huge challenge, but an unavoidable one. "I wish I could make it easy, but it's just painful for the current staff," he said, adding that the agency is hoping to set up new training labs to help bring employees up to speed.

 

Things You Can't Plan For

Any large program like TIERS runs within some margin of error, McCurley said - for SAVERR it was between 5 percent and 7 percent. But TIERS was under the microscope because of the hype associated with the call center switch.

When the pilot indicated there were problems with the application, public outcry was swift because social services are of such vital importance and are under such close watch by the media.

The way employees adapt to the program and the most commonly made mistakes are things you can't plan for, McCurley said - they're the reason you start with a pilot and make adjustments.

"No matter how good a job you do of drawing up the process in a lab, they're going to do what they're going to do," he said. "You really have very little control over their behavior."

The controversy around TIERS and the push for private call centers blew in April, with the release of Flood's report and a series of Legislative hearings. House committees questioned Albert Hawkins, executive commissioner of the HHSC, on management decisions and ultimately put the program under closer Legislative oversight.

"When you're doing a project this massive, it's a best practice to be sure you have a single point of oversight," Flood said. "That oversight

Patrick Michels  |  Contributing Writer
Patrick Michels is based in San Francisco and Austin, Texas. He writes for Government Technology, Texas Technology and Emergency Management magazines.