The First Ten Thousand Hours of the Texas Voter Database Project

Part One: Weeks 1-9
Privatization, Knowledge Management,
And a Mappable Future Like You Wouldn’t Believe

By Greg Moses

It is the perfect coincidence. The Texas State Employees Union all dressed in black t-shirts and divided up by senate districts are occupying the North plaza of the state capitol as I walk up. Of course, they want a pay raise, and I hope they get a big one. But they also want to explain why it is a bad idea for the state to shut down offices for Health and Human Services (HHS), lay off state workers, and replace the whole network with privately contracted call centers.

As I shuffle through the tall but narrow doors of power in a crush of unionists who are funneling through, I think about the grim trend of privatization and how it touches on the project that I have come to study this afternoon, a $12 million dollar deal with private contractors to build and maintain a statewide voter registration and election management system known as project TEAM (Texas Election Administration Management).

As I type out the results of things that I found while reading 21 weekly reports filed by the Secretary of State’s (SOS) project manager, I’m going to grumble along with the unionists’ mood of anti-privatization. For instance, I wonder why the existing staff and resources of the Texas Voter Registration System were not placed more fully in control of the project to upgrade and extend the system that they had already been running for the state.

For one thing, as we will see, the existing SOS elections division staff is essential to the project. They know the registration system and they are close partners in developing the system. I have never spoken to any of them, but in the circumstances of their work life, I imagine they must feel like many state workers these days who are enlisted to provide the essential expertise needed for high-powered privatization of public functions.

For another thing, just like the private call centers that will be doing state business for HHS, the functions of the election project are entirely public in their significance, and should be open to the usual processes of public accountability. But when private vendors start handling crucial public functions, like social services and elections, lines get drawn in self-contradictory ways. As I come across documentary trails that lead in the direction of IBM or its chief subcontractor in this project Hart InterCivic a significant shift of terrain takes place.

As a journalist I am very much in the habit of picking up the phone, calling public employees, and asking them questions. And as public employees they are generally helpful and responsive. Just a few days ago a fairly well-placed manager in the Texas bureaucracy took down my question, found the answer and called me back in about five minutes time. Are employees of IBM or Hart InterCivic prepared to follow suit?

The question gets stickier the more unfriendlier the reply. For instance, if a public employee refuses to answer questions about public business, there is a structure of appeals, including open records requests. These systems are not always as responsive as they should be, but at least we can press the question of what should be the public’s right to know.

In the case of private contractors who are doing public business, what should be the public’s right to know?

In the hefty contract for the TEAM project, Hart InterCivic holds the state legally liable for guarding its proprietary secrets. No details of the Hart software are to be discussed with or released to the public without prior written approval.

On the one hand, Hart can argue that software developers anywhere have some rights to their private property. Let’s say a software company is licensing spreadsheet software to the state for bookkeeping purposes. Shouldn’t the state respect the property rights of that software? But here’s the rub. In the development and maintenance of election management software, there are nothing but public functions at stake. Why shouldn’t these technologies which will regulate the heart of the voting process be specially reserved for public development by public interests, such as the existing elections division at the SOS?

In the case of this voter database project in Texas, there is some consolation in the fact that the private function has a specific scope and time limit. After Team IBM puts the database system together, the state will operate it, and after four more years of service contracts with Hart InterCivic, the state will have the option to buy back the database system at “fair market value.” So this privatization project is not as grim as others you see around town today, such as the plan to permanently close HHS offices and replace them with contract vendors forever. But we’ll come back to the question later. Now for some facts.

As of April 1 (I don’t pick the dates, I just report them) Team IBM had reported ten thousand billable hours into the database project, or about 27 percent of the total hours that are scheduled. And the state has accepted from them 35 of the “deliverable” items or about 12 percent of the 291 items due by next February, the revised completion date of the project. In return for what the state has received, Team IBM has been paid $220,000 since November, 2004. (Although the report is dated April 1, the number of hours reported is carried over from the March 25 report, so the final April 1 hours will be higher. Stay tuned.)

“The poor start has been corrected,” writes the project manager, “and the project is running much more smoothly.” About that poor start, we’ll soon see what the documents have to say. Shall we start at the beginning?

Way back on Nov. 8, the Monday after the elections, Team IBM was welcomed to the “billable” part of the project. The first thing they asked for was a filing cabinet that locks. The first thing the state asked from Team IBM was a weekly report to be handed in every Tuesday covering the prior week.

Already by this point, Texas was leading other states in the development of its database. The project manager proudly showed off plans in College Station on Nov. 16 to a meeting of County Tax Assessors (who double as voter registrars), held a conference call to share his experience with Arizona, and on Nov. 19 convened the kickoff meeting for the TEAM system.

The trouble began during week three, when IBM delivered its first “deliverable.” Although the file was labeled “Detailed Requirements Specifications” state staff said it was not what they expected to see, and the state’s project manager called the file “incomplete.” And it is here that the knowledge of state staff enters into evidence versus the expertise of a privatized vendor. In exhibit number one, state staff simply had higher expectations than the private sector was delivering. And this is what privatization really feels like, time after time.

As November and December tugged at week four, Team IBM delivered its first deliverable that the state would accept: Deliverable D.1 aka Initial Project Workplan. Not a bad month’s work.

Also during week four, TEAM held its first group organizational meeting and invited a speaker. Cathy Cioffi is overseeing the overhaul of a statewide Crash Records Information System (CRIS). The project weighs in at $14.1 million involving two state agencies (DPS and TxDOT) and a private giant (Northrup Grumman).

A quick google on Cioffi yields an interesting article about Knowledge Management or KM in which Cioffi is quoted as saying, if you want $14 million for something, don’t call it KM: “We could not have gotten funding at the state level for something classified as a KM project,” says CRIS Project Manager Cathy Cioffi. “We had to show the business links–and where the value is–because we’re using taxpayer dollars.”

In an age of privatization Cioffi’s quote is nicely done. If you want to spend public money, focus on the business links. Well, she didn’t invent the times she’s living in, but she does express them very well.

But what if we take Cioffi’s hint that this is really Knowledge Management that we’re talking about? The article by Alice Dragoon at CIO Archives stresses that the way you do KM is incrementally, because folks who don’t know KM won’t support you otherwise. Consider another KM strategist: “He would start with a series of small, discrete KM initiatives that would quickly demonstrate value, then gradually build on those successes, creating a knowledge-enabled organization one layer at a time.”

It’s a great strategy no doubt this layering where one thing at a time you make your whole world datafied. It appeals to my inner geekness, my own database dreams of struggle. But it also whispers a cautionary hint. These data projects that we are funding all around us have a great potential to add up to something. Are we thinking ahead?

In our business oriented public life, no law gets considered for adoption without a fiscal note. This helps lawmakers avoid the mistake of passing a law that on its face has no budget but in consequence will really cost a lot of money. Cioffi’s hint about the politics of Knowledge Management suggests that something like a fiscal note might be considered for KM. If KM projects are going to be sold in our business-oriented world in terms of fiscal efficiency, then how are we going to flag the need for discussing their actual KM implications in public life?

Week five finds our subcontractor in election affairs Hart InterCivic down at the Department of Public Safety, figuring out how best to tap into everything your state troopers have to offer. And this is just the sort of occasion that calls for a growl. What could be more public in function than records kept by your friendly state troopers? At this point, the interface between two very public functions is being funneled into proprietary private software. In the voting system of the future, there will be a real-time interface between voting rolls and criminal records, between voter registration applications and drivers license records. In the meeting between Hart and DPS are we enabling the privatization of interfaces that have nothing but public uses? And what rights do we have to even ask Hart what they might be up to?

Meanwhile during week five our project manager meets with subcontractor GeoDecisions to get oriented on the possibilities of graphical mapping. The project includes mapping because voter information will be mapped to street addresses and street addresses will be mapped to voter precincts. In addition, census data will be overlaid onto precinct maps. Not only will voters have the ability to find out where they should vote, but political strategists will be able to call up reports that show which streets tend to vote in Democratic primaries, with names and addresses attached.

The mapping meeting also raises new issues about the brave new world of data interfacing. Imagine the day coming when Hart InterCivic will sell software that interfaces mapping with state trooper criminal records? Want arrest records by street? Maps of criminal histories?

When Texas hired their project manager, they went and got the guy who wrote a textbook on project management so watch out, he’s into the concept, very much. During week five he sorts through your three basic project categories: Deliverables (the things that can be finished and turned over at a specific point in time); Working Documents (that have to be kept updated and are therefore subject to change and never really finished); and Assumption Items (what you assume to be true about parameters, capabilities, partners, and other forms of reality). And when he’s finished going through all these things, he makes a note: “found 117 items to exchange categories.” I don’t know about you, but that kind of thing makes me go wow, this guy really knows how to KM! Makes you wanna peek at his desktop, too. Or when you move something from assumption to deliverable, what kind of move is that?

Note to self: during week six the project manager goes to Cooper Consulting’s “monthly project managers meeting” on December 14. Now what is Cooper Consulting up to exactly? Please don’t forget to ask. Meanwhile, Team IBM after six weeks work and two deliverables down (I don’t know what the second one is) has logged 2,386 billable hours.

Weeks seven and eight should be holiday weeks for sane people. But right at the beginning TEAM holds a Focus Group meeting for 20 representatives from 12 counties, then the project manager lines up his empty files to be filled later by all the signed docs. That sounds like a reasonable way to work during the holidays. Get your filing system set up for the New Year. I may be WASP, but there are days you have to relax a little.

Week nine is the first week of the New Year. The project manager touches base with the Legislative Budget Board about getting permission to do the computer development in Austin rather than West Texas where all state computer work is supposed to be done in facilities managed by Northrup Grumman.

Do you wonder just a little if IBM and Hart trust Grumman to keep all these proprietary secrets during the coming year? I want to label parts of this paragraph as abject speculation, but while spell checking Northrup Grumman against their website, they informed me that their next generation pilotless killer airplane just took off for a test. Now you put that thing together with a mappable DPS database of troublemakers and you’ll long for the good ol days of tasers I assure you.

On Jan. 7, the project manager reports three new deliverables, places a purchase order, and heads off to South Padre for a conference on election management. It’s good to be king.

series to be continued

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