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The state’s jobless website failure demands accountability

Published: January 17, 2014

Months after unveiling a $63 million upgrade to its unemployment website, the state continues to struggle to process claims from thousands of unemployed Floridians who depend on the money for rent and food.

But news that the federal government is sending U.S. Department of Labor employees to Florida to help fix a broken website can hardly be greeted with optimism considering the troubles with the Obamacare website.

Their arrival, at the urging of Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, is more likely to bring embarrassment to Gov. Rick Scott than a quick fix of the unemployment system’s problems. That said, Scott needs to make this problem a priority and hold accountable the people responsible for the mess.

The troubles began in October, when the revamped Florida Department of Economic Development website, called CONNECT, failed to work properly. By one estimate, as much as $22 million in benefits has now been denied to unemployed Floridians because of the technical problems. Although the process is administered by the state, the Department of Labor oversees unemployment benefits. To his credit, Nelson has been demanding answers. The state’s response hasn’t inspired confidence. The person in charge of the website, Jesse Panuccio, the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity director, at first soft-pedaled the problems, calling them glitches that were to be expected.

But that’s hardly been the case. The company the state hired to do the work, Deloitte Consulting, has a history of troubled technology contracts. The launch in Florida was 10 months late and occurred after concerns were raised as the launch neared.

After the launch, users found the website down, encountered error messages, or were blocked from full access.

Assurances were made that the site would be functioning well by the end of last month. But the site continues to have problems. The state is now withholding a $3 million payment from Deloitte and fining the company $15,000 each day the problems remain unresolved.

A second tech company will be paid $365,000 to review the site, and as many as 330 workers will be hired to help process claims at an estimated cost of $165,000 a week. Panuccio says money collected from Deloitte, along with federal funds, will pay for the additional costs. He blames the company entirely for the problems, and the dispute may very well end up in court. Similarities to the launch of the website are unmistakable. In both cases government bureaucrats unveiled a flawed website without the proper testing. But the state, and the federal government, should resist calls to spend even more money by creating IT departments.

The focus should be on hiring the right contractors, putting new systems though rigorous testing, and making sure they work before launch. Anyone responsible for failing to follow those simple steps should be sent to the unemployment line.