During the last six years, Colorado braved a blistering storm of IT project adversity.

The trouble started with the deployment of the Colorado Benefits Management System (CBMS), an effort by the state's Department of Human Services and Department of Health Care Policy and Financing to replace several legacy systems with a single integrated program. That system's rocky rollout -- along with several other high-profile IT project difficulties -- prompted state lawmakers to pass a series of project management reforms this year.

A Colorado lawmaker involved in the legislation said the reforms make badly needed changes to the management of major government IT projects. Colorado's state CIO said the bill strengthens oversight and planning by involving his office more thoroughly in the life cycle of IT projects. Others, including the CIO of the Colorado Department of Human Services, said the measures could be a step in the right direction, but their effectiveness will depend on how they're implemented.

The CBMS faltered immediately after its implementation in 2001, doling out benefits to citizens who didn't qualify for them and denying benefits to those who did. Counties pummeled the state Human Services agency with lawsuits, demanding a solution to the growing backlog of needy citizens lacking benefits.

"We had people who were supposed to be getting food stamps," said Colorado Sen. Ron Teck, who has criticized the ability of state agencies to manage deployment of the ambitious, $200 million, integrated-benefits system.

Teck, a member of the Legislative Joint Computer Management Committee and author of some of the reform measures, said some benefit recipients were told to wait six months while state agencies got the new system squared away. "They had children to feed," he said.

Department of Human Services officials said they struggled to satisfy conflicting operational preferences coming from numerous stakeholders in Colorado state and local government. Furthermore, chronic underfunding from the state Legislature led to understaffing, which contributed significantly to the project's difficulties.

The jury is still out on whether the latest reforms will prevent future IT project nightmares. But Colorado's experience with the CBMS illustrates the complexity and difficulty of deploying integrated systems that serve multiple agencies and levels of government.

System Dysfunction

Teck said a gross lack of project management expertise in Colorado government led to the CBMS's dysfunction.

"The plan of attack was just poorly designed," he said. "They didn't have all the right people at the table when they were designing the system. It was apparent that they didn't spend a lot of time talking to the folks at the county level who were going to be responsible for actually using the system."

Ron Huston, CIO of the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS), said the project's team consulted the state's 64 counties, but fell into quicksand trying to satisfy numerous conflicting operational preferences simultaneously.

"We had the challenge of building a system to fit 64 different business models, and in essence, having 64 different counties telling us what they wanted. You're never going to get 64 people to agree," Huston said, adding that additional advice from the roughly 3,000 lower technicians in the counties compounded the problem.

In future projects, officials must accept the reality that some decisions won't satisfy all counties, Huston said, adding that to make completing projects livable for all counties, project leaders must develop congenial ways of enforcing that reality.

But Teck contends state agency officials shut down legacy benefit systems before the CBMS was ready for prime time. A planned one-year pilot of the new system was drastically reduced after the project fell behind schedule, he said.

"Instead of a yearlong pilot, they decided to do a 20-day pilot over a handful of counties, which did point out a number of problems -- and they tried

Andy Opsahl  | 

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.