Technology: Computer Errors are Human Errors

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“Output is only as good as your input,” said a state worker about computer systems.

I asked the worker to help me understand how the University of Wisconsin’s personnel computer system continued to pay for the health insurance of 924 former employees for months after they terminated employment.

The Legislative Audit Bureau recently released their review of the financial audit of the state of Wisconsin. In the review, auditors reported problems with state computer systems. Several findings were related to the Human Resource System used by the UW.

Employee related costs make up two-thirds of the UW system budget – almost $3 billion in the past fiscal year. UW employees account for almost half of all state employees. The auditors found problems with the system that tracks and pays UW employees.

In addition to $15.4 million paid for health insurance of terminated employees, auditors found the UW overpaid employee retirement costs by $17.5 million in 2011.

After the errors were reported the state retirement system credited the UW for the retirement overpayment. But the UW failed to recoup most of the health insurance overpayment.

Auditors also expressed concerns that some programmers could change portions of the payroll system without adequate oversight.

Similar problems were found in the Departments of Transportation and Health Services. Both agencies reported progress on correcting problems but they were again cited in this year’s financial audit’s findings.

Since the state has had technology systems, auditors have expressed concerns about system security. Past security concerns included problems with the state’s high-risk insurance program, the state’s employee benefits program and Educational Communications Board. In all these cases, employees or former employees had too much access to computer systems creating possible security problems.

Once auditors directed attention to these situations, agencies corrected the problems.

The initial response of the UW system to their mistakes, however, seemed less than conciliatory. The UW system answered auditors repeated concerns with something like, “we’ll get to it sometime in 2013”; not exactly what Legislators want to hear.

Problems with the UW human resources computer systems go back to 1999 when the UW decided to revamp an antiquated personnel system.

Over the course of seven years, the new system was delayed and suffered serious cost overruns. Ultimately the UW cancelled the contract with the company hired to create the system. The entire fiasco cost the state at least $28 million – not counting significant staff costs.

Given the history, the seriousness of the findings and the reaction of the UW, it is likely the Joint Committee on Audit will hold a public hearing on the results of this audit soon.

One area that might be explored by committee members is the effect of Act 10 on the ability of managers to adequately supervise programming staff. In talking with state employees, I learned that having a union contract made work performance much more consistent than it is now.

“If you are talking about system controls, you are talking about a management issue as much as a programming issue,” one IT employee told me. 

“Union contracts gave employers clear rules and consequences,” the IT employee continued. “You knew the consequences of indiscretion and those consequences were carried out every time an infraction occurred. Now if you have a ‘good boss’ you may get away with more than if you have a ‘bad boss’.”

“Human input is what creates software programming,” the worker reminded me. 

The more difficult work environment creates a more “us against them” atmosphere that makes it harder to solve complex programming and computer security problems.

When there is a good relationship between management and employees the flexibility exists to correct problems when they first appear. But in the more rigid “us against them” environment, problems sometimes persist and old problems become institutionalized.

 “There is a real tendency [in state government] to think ‘here’s how we do things and we are not going to do it differently’. This attitude is a problem,” the IT employee explained.

I’m learning that if we want the output of state government to serve the people well, and keep the system secure, we must ensure the human input is well managed.