CHARLESTON, W.Va. - West Virginia is in the first months of an eight-year, $98 million effort to change the nuts and bolts of state bureaucracy.
While it will mostly escape public notice beyond the halls of government, the state is working to eliminate scores of far-flung software programs. Instead, West Virginia government is working on one computer system to manage state's accounts, personnel and assets. The goal is to keep better track of taxpayers' money and provide unprecedented levels of government oversight.
The contract, one of the largest in state government, was awarded late last year to CGI, a Montreal-based technology company that's doing similar projects in other states.
Just signing the contract was a multi-year undertaking and it's not nearly finished. The system will come online in four main stages starting in fall 2013.
As that happens, the state is going to have to train an untold number of state employees how to use it.
State officials hired consultants to make sure the computer system was a good idea. The Legislature hired a consultant of its own to do a review before agreeing to foot the bill.
The bidding process started in February and didn't end until December after two rounds of analysis. More than 30 people advised the state on how to proceed. The state asked companies to meet 12,310 specific requirements.
Five companies submitted more than 10,000 pages of technical proposals for review. Company representatives and purchasing division staffers traded hundreds of pages of emails, including some emails from other bidders that sharply questioned the ability of CGI to do what it says it will.
The computer system is known as the Enterprise Resource Planning system. It has two nicknames: ERP and "WV OASIS," which stands for "Our Advanced Solution with Integrated Systems."
The ERP even has its own governing structure that was established by law. The governor, auditor and state treasurer are on a three-member board that oversees the project. A sixteen-member steering committee reports to them.
All that because the state hopes it can save money by combining numerous far-flung computer programs into one.
The state currently has one computer system that agencies use for some billing, but several years ago the state began to think that system wasn't good enough. The current program, called Financial Information Management System, or FIMS, is nearly a quarter century old. Before that, the state used IBM Selectric typewriters to help keep its books.
An analysis by Unisys, a technology consulting firm, said in order to do best practices, the state needed "transform their financial systems, processes and organization."
One sign the software may be sorely needed was an audit last year that found the state Department of Environmental Protection had an accounting system that wasn't able to accurately track more than $19 million flowing through the agency.
So, there were three choices: keep doing business as usual, upgrade FIMS or get a whole new system. Upgrading would require extensive time and money and be "very high risk," Unisys told the state.
Already, the ERP is going to cost more than first thought.
In 2008, the state's top technology official thought it would cost on the "high end of the $40 to $60 (million) estimated range," according to a report Boston-based consultants Wolf & Company gave to the Legislature.
When the first round of bids were opened last summer, two companies were disqualified and three remaining bids ranged from $80 million to $173 million.
Global computer giant IBM and Morris Plains, N.J.-based Cherry Roads both submitted proposals that failed to meet the state's rigorous technical demands.
Then the state put the three remaining companies through another round of bidding to clarify some questions and to get a best and final offer.
Finally, the state settled on CGI's $98 million bid during the second round of bidding. About $13 million of that is just licensing fees for software.
But there questions about the initial vast disparities during the first round of bidding.
In a July 2011 letter before the second round of bidding, one of the other bidders, Accenture, worried that CGI could not possibly do its work for the rate it bid.
At first, CGI said it could do the job in 359,00 hours, while Deloitte said it would need 820,000 hours and Accenture said it needed 740,000 hours, according to an analysis by Accenture of the bids.
"Staffing the WV ERP project with people compensated at entry level labor rates, combined with the seriously insufficient staffing noted above, leads to errors, delays and on the job learning at the expense of the state," Accenture said before the final round of bidding.
In the second round, CGI said it would need 514,000 hours to complete the project at an average rate of $118 an hour.
By contrast, Accenture needed 20,000 more hours -- 533,000 hours -- at $164 per hour. At the high end, Deloitte committed to 622,000 hours at $144 per hour.
After CGI won the contract in mid-December, Accenture again complained, this time about the way the bid was judged by the state.
"In particular, we are confused and troubled by the inconsistent and arbitrary nature of the scoring," a company executive wrote to the state purchasing division. "As a result, we strongly request that the State redo its scoring.
But that letter wasn't considered a formal protest by the purchasing division.
State acting Secretary of Administration Ross Taylor said the state came away satisfied with CGI's bid and ability to do the project. He said the low rate was a sign of CGI's commitment.
"To me all that really indicates is that CGI really wanted the job," he said. "We weren't necessarily going to question why they were offering such a low rate.
"As a result, it's up to us to manage the project to make certain that, No. 1, they do give us the staffing that they won and then No. 2, that they don't come back with a lot of change orders and things, trying to increase their cost, trying to increase their monies they receive from us."