for one-third of the state's annual operating budget. Then, the Legislature directed the HHSC to explore using private call centers, rather than walk-in government offices, for processing requests for social services benefits.

 
Signs of Trouble
As the call center plan moved forward, HHSC needed a data management system to support its new phone-based eligibility operations. The situation put HHSC officials on the horns of a dilemma: They could revert to SAVERR, a 20-year old program that was never designed to work in a call center environment. They could adapt TIERS, which already had cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars, but also wasn't designed for call-center operations. Or they could use proprietary software provided by the company chosen to operate the newly privatized call centers.

SAVERR worked, but the agency had already been directed to find a replacement, and the technology was quickly becoming outdated and unsupportable. HHSC managers decided against letting the call-center vendor use its own eligibility software because they didn't want to be locked into a proprietary solution, according to a report from HHSC Inspector General Brian Flood.

TIERS - developed for the state by Deloitte Consulting LLP - remained a work in progress, but the HHSC already had invested a substantial amount of money and time in the new program. Therefore, the HHSC decided to stick with TIERS and try to get it running smoothly in time for the call center rollout. TIERS needed to be tweaked to fit this new task, however. For example, the data entry fields were shrunk to fewer pages because the condensed format makes more sense for taking information over the phone.

Even before being adapted for call center use, TIERS was very complicated. During pilot deployments, TIERS encountered problems that led to longer case-entry times and an inability to create certain case history reports needed for federal compliance. A report by HHSC Inspector General Brian Flood and a separate federal audit found that the program had serious design flaws as an eligibility-processing tool.

Based on what HHSC officials were learning from the TIERS pilot, the agency already had a full plate, and the move to call centers complicated the program further. Still, when the HHSC submitted its call-center plan to the federal Food and Nutrition Service - which provides the state money for food stamps - the state commission said it would push ahead with TIERS.

 

A Benefits Behemoth
Despite the problems, officials continued to add functions to the program. When the HHSC was reorganized to include a handful of other state services, management decided to let TIERS power as much of the agency's work as possible, according to Flood's report, which was released in April.

TIERS grew into a benefits-calculating behemoth. "The project was so large and tech-driven that some of the business needs were not properly designed into the system," Flood said.

Goodman contends the HHSC has handled deployment of the sprawling program just fine, but agrees it's a big job. "It's like remodeling a house with 4 million people, and they're still living in it," she said.

When Accenture won the call center contract in 2005, the HHSC handed the company the job of running TIERS as well. The program still needed work, but to speed things along, the HHSC cut its contract with Deloitte and handed Accenture the job of fixing TIERS, along with starting up the call centers. Accenture eventually contracted some of the work of fixing and modifying TIERS back to Deloitte, at a hefty cost to the HHSC, according to Flood's report.

Accenture Senior Executive Dave McCurley said the project's biggest problems didn't arise from the scale of the program, but from how little wiggle room the company had - due to detailed laws at

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.