Why is the state’s technology so bad?

“THE…DISASTER WAS completely avoidable, as administrators knew the system was not ready, yet decided to launch it anyway… Investigations cannot undo the taxpayer dollars wasted and the disruption of families’ access to health care.”

That comment could have been voiced recently by critics of the state’s troubled vaccine finder website – but it wasn’t. It was actually a critique of the state’s disastrous rollout of the Health Connector website in 2014, built under then-Gov. Deval Patrick. The speaker was then-gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker – now the governor in charge of the Vaxfinder website best known for the four-armed orange octopus that appeared when it crashed.

There are significant differences between the debacles. The Health Connector website failure cost hundreds of millions of dollars and, in its initial form, never worked. The state had to give hundreds of thousands of people temporary Medicaid coverage because it couldn’t figure out what insurance they were eligible for. The Vaxfinder website cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and ultimately, it has worked, with tens of thousands of people using it to sign up for vaccine appointments, despite the difficulties.

Yet the state’s rollout of Vaxfinder 3.0 on Wednesday begs the question of why the state has so many technology problems.

In 2013, the Boston Globe highlighted problems the state had with Deloitte Consulting. The firm was fired by the Department of Revenue after a disastrous attempt to install a new computer system for residents to file taxes. Deloitte had already botched a Labor Department system to handle unemployment benefits.

A Denver consultant told the Globe that public officials often don’t fire consultants because they risk damaging their reputations or igniting public ire. “In the private sector, these people would be fired in a second,” said Z. Vanessa Giacoman.

In 2017, Baker created a new Executive Office of Technology Services and Security, elevating the state’s technology head to a cabinet-level position in an attempt to improve state-run technology.

Yet, problems persist. The Globe recently reported that people claiming unemployment benefits are struggling to use the state’s unemployment insurance system, which was labeled a “dinosaur” by a legislative oversight committee. The Department of Unemployment Assistance admits the system has been strained by unusually heavy use – and fraud – during the pandemic.

State officials have been moving at a glacially slow pace to implement a new criminal justice cross-tracking system required by the 2018 criminal justice reform bill. Much of the difficulty seems to stem from the different – and sometimes antiquated – systems used by various criminal justice agencies. For example, the state auditor recently deemed the 20-year-old case management system used by the state’s district attorneys “outdated and ineffective.”

Then there’s the COVID vaccine appointment site. First, the state simply listed each vaccination provider online, requiring users to click through each one to search for an appointment. Then it debuted the Vaxfinder site, which aggregated providers and showed residents where appointments were available. That site crashed because it couldn’t handle the heavy traffic when everyone 65 and older became eligible. State officials then installed a “waiting room” feature – in which one resident was told their wait time was 65,540 minutes.

On Wednesday, facing criticism for not allowing people to pre-register for vaccines – thus avoiding the weekly scramble for appointments – the Baker administration debuted a pre-registration system. The system for now is limited – it only applies to mass vaccination sites – and eliminates some flexibility, since people will be assigned to a site closest to their home.

It remains to be seen how well it will work. But the larger question remains. In a state that is home to some of the world’s best universities and most successful private technology companies — where the World Wide Web itself was fine-tuned — why are public technology projects so sorely lacking?

SHIRA SCHOENBERG

FROM COMMONWEALTH

The Senate stands pat on climate change legislation, accepting a number of minor tweaks suggested by Gov. Charlie Baker but rejecting his major amendments.

Baker criticizes vaccine manufacturers for failing to deliver enough doses, saying the state has the capacity to administer 2 million shots a month but it is currently receiving only about 1 million.

A new vaccine pre-registration system is coming on Friday for the state’s mass vaccination sites.

Opinion: Jon Hurst of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts says the unemployment insurance legislation doesn’t go far enough. … Tim Foley of 1199SEIU says the state’s health care workforce needs to be a priority in 2021.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

Sen Diana DiZoglio — who sponsored a bill that would create a vaccine preregistration system — tells Gov. Charlie Baker “it’s about time” he adopted the policy. (Eagle-Tribune)

Nearly half of the 57 Massachusetts businesses that have been handed liquor license suspensions by the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission because of breaches of COVID-19 safety protocols received grants from the Baker administration to help small businesses struggling amid the pandemic. (Boston Globe

Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute and Chris Anderson of the Mass. High Tech Council say the combination of a possible Supreme Court ruling and a new tax on high-earners being pushed in Massachusetts could be a devastating one-two blow to state revenue if it prompts a big exodus of high-income people to New Hampshire. (Boston Globe

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Soon-to-be acting Boston mayor Kim Janey wants a residency exemption for her proposed coronavirus czar, who doesn’t live in the city, but members of the commission that would have to grant the waiver seem wary of the idea. (Boston Herald

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Massachusetts updates its travel order to no longer require visitors who are fully vaccinated to test or quarantine. (MassLive)

GBH has a series of stories and op-eds dedicated to looking back at a year of the pandemic.

The Cape’s legislative delegation sent a letter to school superintendents telling them not to expect an educator-only vaccination site in the area anytime soon. (Cape Cod Times)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

The House gives final approval to a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, which President Biden could sign as early as Friday. (NPR)

ELECTIONS

Republicans across 43 states have proposed at least 250 new laws restricting voting access, “potentially amounting to the most sweeping contraction of ballot access in the United States since the end of Reconstruction, when Southern states curtailed the voting rights of formerly enslaved Black men.” (Washington Post

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

A judge orders the Department of Unemployment Assistance to stop putting people’s unemployment benefits on hold for months because they are deemed ineligible without giving them any opportunity to appeal. (MassLive)

EDUCATION

Worcester will seek a waiver from abiding by the state’s timeline for reopening schools. (Telegram & Gazette)

Fall River Superintendent Matt Malone declined a City Council’s invitation to discuss the School Department’s portion of a five-year capital improvement plan on Tuesday and, in turn, councilors tabled the issue until he shows. (Herald News)

School officials in Framingham say they are going to phase out the teaching of Latin at the high school. (MetroWest Daily News)

ARTS/CULTURE

MassLive has a moving profile about how a hand-made hutch connected two intertwined Northampton families and two men — a teacher who recently died of cancer and his former student who was killed on the battlefields of Vietnam.

TRANSPORTATION

One big challenge for the effort to speed the changeover to electric cars? Today’s gasoline-fueled vehicles can easily last a decade or two. (New York Times

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

A Williamstown police sergeant was placed on leave after all of the department’s full-time officers signed a letter accusing him of bullying and harassment. (Berkshire Eagle)

MEDIA

The parent company of the Dallas Morning News, A.H. Belo Corp., wants to change its name because its namesake had ties to the Confederacy. (Dallas Morning News)

Andrea Sahouri, a reporter for the Des Moines Register, is acquitted by an Iowa court of charges of failing to disperse and interfering with official acts while she was covering a George Floyd protest. (Des Moines Register)