Texas Child Support Enforcement System 2.0

The following entry is a record in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe” – a list of failed or troubled projects from around the world.

State of Texas – USA
Project name: T2 – Texas Child Support Enforcement System 2.0
Project type: Government policy implementation using IT
Date: Apr 2019
Cost   $367.5 million


At times failed projects do throw up some great quotes. Rep. Giovanni Capriglione of the Texas state senate has contributed to that legacy with this week’s quip about the failed T2 system in Texas – “This was a $60 million idea — $340 million ago.”

It’s no great surprise that large-scale IT developments projects are difficult to manage. The sheer number of requirements and the complex interactions between people, business processes and reality, combine as the number of possible scenarios to be handled skyrockets.

To manage that complexity many organizations turn to consulting firms for help. These third party consulting firms act as ‘integrators’, providing the project with technical leadership and the necessary manpower. Supposedly they bring expertise to the table and provide the surge of staff needed for timely delivery. While that does at times happen, the project landscape is also littered with stories in which billing has run amok and costs soar into the stratosphere. What was tens of millions becomes hundreds of millions (State of California) and what was to be hundreds of millions becomes billions (Phoenix failing). Instead of making the client ten times more productive, these integrators sometimes simply make the project ten times more costly.

The big challenge of course lies in establishing responsibility. Clients and integrators both point fingers at each other. Clients say that poor quality workmanship and lack of management controls are the source of the problems, while the integrators point back to unstable business requirements and continual change. In most cases they both have a point, but arguing the details distracts from the mistakes both parties typically make up front.

Such engagements typically start as a RFP (Request for Proposal). At that point the hopeful integrators are under enormous pressure to win the bid. Winning bids are the building blocks of a partnership in a consulting firm and the pressure to win can be intense. That intensity can at times led to optimistic promises, the death of due diligence and hasty estimates. On the flip side, buyers often place enormous trust in the pitches made by the consultants; you’re the expert, so I trust you. In the void of understanding the seeds of future trouble are sown.

In the worst of cases, those seeds are fertilized by archaic approaches to contracting. Contracts are sometimes written as if the requirements were fully mature and estimates fully fledged. The reality is often quite different. The requirements are only partially understood and estimates nothing more than preliminary. The result is an orthogonal relationship between reality and contract. That disconnect is something the integrators use to their advantage; every change needing to be made becomes a change request and every change request become a ‘ka-ching’ in their coffers! While buyers blame poor quality, integrators blame shifting requirements and use the opportunity as their stairway to financial Heaven. Dazed and confused, relationships sour and clients end up dragging their consultants into the courtroom (e.g. Marin county).

Many of these stories point to a fundamental problem. Clients have an expectation that the consulting firms have mature Project Management and Quality Management practices. Sales pitches typically include some nice wording about how good the organizations capabilities are, but there is typically little in the way of due diligence done to validate those claims. It’s taken as given – Of course these big consulting firms have robust methods in place.

Truth be told that is not always the case. Sometimes the methodologies are wafer thin and sometimes they are paper tigers. The consulting firm may have an old folder full of materials, but who’s ever looked at that? Let alone who’s ever been trained in that stuff? Even big name firms are sometimes winging it. Those so called consultants may be recent grads who’ve had a day of self-study computer based training. That senior consultant may be a person who was hired just last week and knows nothing of the organization’s supposed methodology. Even the assigned partner may turn out to be more a sales person than a leader extraordinaire.

Although full details of the T2 story remain undisclosed, it does act as another warning of how careful both buyer and seller need to be when entering into contracts for large-scale IT transformation projects. The nature, structure, scope and philosophy in the contract needs careful consideration, not a gleeful grin and a swipe of a pen.


Contributing factors as reported in the press:
Poor design, insufficiently skilled labour.

Reference links:

  1. After $367.5 million, Texas gets no new child support computer software – just painful lessons
  2. Overview of the Texas Child Support Enforcement System 2.0