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State gives Accenture another chance

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

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 for 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 reported the system will cost $253 million during 10 years to set up and operate, at 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, Sept. 21, 2005), “Election fraud plan to miss fall vote” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Aug. 4, 2006), “State voting system is further delayed” (Wisconsin State Journal, Feb. 8, 2007) and “State voter registration software a ‘disaster’” (Daily Cardinal, Nov. 28, 2007).

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

LuedersThough clearly frustrated with Accenture at the time, former Elections Board leader Kevin Kennedy said Wisconsin came out OK.

“We kept what they had and made it work,” said Kennedy, now director and general counsel for the state Government Accountability Board, which absorbed the Elections Board. He said 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, said the state’s decision to hire Accenture, a move his group opposed, amounted to “pouring money down a rat hole.”

“Accenture seems to be very good at getting state contracts,” McCabe said, “but it doesn’t seem very good at delivering the goods.”

Some Democratic state lawmakers also raised concerns.

Accenture’s proposal scored higher than one from another bidder in a process subjected to outside review. DOA spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said the state is requiring the company 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 and was completed on time and under budget, said system spokesman David Giroux. An earlier attempt by another contractor was abandoned at a $28 million loss.

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

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