More than a year after the meltdown of its most recent attempt to replace the state’s outdated human resources management software, the state of Maine has quietly chosen a new company to try to finally bring the system online.

Accenture, a global consulting powerhouse incorporated in Ireland for tax reasons, was provisionally awarded a $10.9 million contract in February to implement the long-delayed system to manage all payroll, vacation time, taxes, health care and retirement benefits for 12,000 state employees. The terms of the contract are still being negotiated.

“We are hopeful that the combination of a new system (implementer), internal changes made to department processes, and an independent, third-party validation vendor will allow the department to make progress in implementing the Workday product and result in an updated system that better serves the needs of the state,” Anya Trundy, spokesperson for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services said in an email.

The state already has spent at least $35 million over the past six years and two gubernatorial administrations with little to nothing to show for it except a partially functional system that hasn’t yet been put online. The department estimated a year ago that delivering a fully working system would cost $55 million, more than four times what was expected when Gov.Paul LePage’s administration first launched the replacement effort in 2016.

Accenture’s immediate predecessor, Workday Professional Solutions, is locked in a $22 million contract dispute with the state after a months-long standoff on how to complete the project ended with Administrative and Financial Services Commissioner Kirsten Figueroa firing the company in February 2021. The department declined to provide an update on the dispute Friday because it is “an ongoing legal matter.”

State officials said Workday had failed to deliver a workable system, but an investigation a year ago by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram revealed that a series of problems on the state’s side are largely to blame for the project’s collapse.

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INVESTIGATION REVEALED PROBLEMS

Kirsten Figueroa, commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.  Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Inexperienced and poorly qualified people were running the complex project for the state at multiple levels, according to state contractors. Payroll data imported from the old system was faulty. A state manager had been accused of harassing both state and Workday personnel. The work environment grew so toxic that project workers would go outside to cry or sit in silence inside their cars, former contractors reported. When the Department of Administrative and Financial Services decided to bring in a new in-house project manager to rescue the distressed project, it hired Figueroa’s husband, Doug Birgfeld, a move that was legal under state nepotism laws but one that government ethics experts say should have been avoided.

Meanwhile, the state’s 12,000 employees continue to rely on an antiquated software system Figueroa described years ago as “being held together with duct tape and paper clips.” The only remaining employee adept in the archaic COBOL computer language the 40-year-old legacy system uses is considering retirement on April 1 of next year. The department said Friday that there is no schedule yet in place for when the new system – which will use the Workday software the state purchased – will come online.

“I’ve indicated that I would stay around if they needed me,” the last full-time COBOL programmer, Bob Sipe, told the Press Herald. “I would rather go out and do something different, but I have close to 14 years in the Maine retirement (pension) system, so I do want it to be operating successfully in the time that I’m retired.”

Sipe said that over the past year front-line staff like himself had heard very little about the department’s plans to get the Workday software systems up and online. “They’ve been very secretive about what’s happening,” Sipe said in a late April interview, at which time he had not been told the state had selected Accenture as the new implementation consultant two months earlier. “They don’t talk about it and nobody seems to know what’s going on.”

‘A SENSE OF URGENCY’

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Trundy, the spokesperson for Administrative and Financial Services, said Friday that the department “still feels a sense of urgency” to get a new system online, but had implemented measures to stabilize the existing system until they can do so.

Putting a human resources software system in place for an entire state government is a complex process that requires implementation consultants like Accenture to work closely with state personnel to customize and configure the new system, import legacy data, and train personnel how to use and maintain it. Internal documents and meeting notes reviewed by the Press Herald for last year’s investigation of the stalled project identified a host of problems on the state’s side of the ledger that former contractors and staff said were primarily responsible for the meltdown.

“Maine didn’t have the right people in the right places, and the rates they were offering were not going to bring the right expertise to Maine,” Ahmadah Afif, a Maryland-based global training consultant who worked on the project for the state, told the Press Herald last year. “In order to save money, they gave jobs to people with little or no experience. It was like: ‘Hey, I’m going to drop you in the fire. Dance for me!’”

“I don’t think any of us were qualified for the jobs we had,” another former state contractor said. “They were quick to hire whoever they could.”

An independent consulting agency brought in by the state in late 2020 to evaluate what was going wrong with the project – IJA Strategies – identified a laundry list of problems: the state frequently changing plans, deadlines and configurations “as new staff review previous design decisions”; fatigue, turnover and loss of motivation among project staff; disagreements among state agencies over how statewide payroll rules should be interpreted; and bad data being loaded into the new systems from the old one, ensuring errors and delays.

‘BEARS SIGNIFICANT RESPONSIBILITY’

Asked how the department would correct the problems that helped derail the previous attempt to launch the new system, Trundy said Workday Professional Services “bears significant responsibility in not meeting its contractual obligations to stand-up any components that were ready to go live despite their insistence otherwise” but acknowledged that there were “contributing factors the department bore responsibility to correct.”

Trundy outlined a number of new processes the department had developed over the past year to address those shortcomings. They include improving the quality of data and fixing errors before they are imported from the legacy system, ensuring adequate documentation of requirements and business processes, and launching an “electronic audit” that pings every supervisor in the executive branch monthly to certify payroll and other reports the system uses. She said they also are reviewing proposals for an independent verification vendor who will judge the state and Accenture’s performance and assess risk – a role the previous project also had.

Accenture – a company once known as Andersen Consulting – edged out two other firms in a competitive bid for the implementation work. The Dublin-incorporated multinational received the highest scores by far from in-house evaluators, in part because of its extensive experience implementing Workday software systems for other big clients, including the state of Iowa and the cities of Dallas, Denver and Baltimore.

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