State Email Transition Comes at Difficult time

By: David Royse, The News Service of Florida
By: David Royse, The News Service of Florida


David Royse, The News Service of Florida

As state emergency managers keep an eye on an approaching Tropical Storm Isaac they'll be communicating, at least for a few hours overnight, without email.

The state recently cancelled a contract with Xerox to upgrade all of state government's email systems to one unified platform. But the cancellation, due mainly to disagreements over the cost and timeline for completing the project, happened after several agencies had already switched over to the new system.

Now that the contract has been cancelled, those agencies that had already made the move must change back to their old state email programs. The switch time, beginning Wednesday evening, was set before officials knew that a growing storm would be heading into the Caribbean just as Republican convention-goers are preparing to head to Tampa this weekend.

State Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon said top state officials believe that the return of basic email functions to a state server can be done quickly and without major problems.

"Hopefully that goes smoothly, we've got a lot of folks working on that," Koon said Wednesday. "It should go quickly and smoothly, it's just going to be in the overnight hours."

While acknowledging that the timing was "unfortunate," in light of the approaching storm, Koon said it's better to switch the email now, rather than over the weekend when Isaac is expected to be nearing Florida.

"If we've got to do it, (Wednesday) is the time," he said.

Emails going out from workers at the Division of Emergency Management on Wednesday noted the outage, telling recipients that employees were expecting to not have access to emails from 5 p.m. Wednesday until "mid-morning" on Thursday.

Overall across state government, about 5,400 workers will see their new emails go down this week for a switch back to a state system.

Besides, DEM, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Economic Opportunity, the Department of Revenue and several smaller agencies, are also losing email for a period this week to switch back to old email systems. The DOT is the largest agency that has to make the switch, with 2,800 email addresses that have to be migrated.

John Wade, director of the Southwood Shared Resources Center, which supports state email systems, said moving the basic send-and-receive capabilities of users' emails would be done by Thursday, but that wouldn't fully complete the process.

"This move is just the first part," Wade said. "Next, we have to return all the history and archive data, which takes a little longer." That means employees in those agencies may not have complete access to old emails or even contact lists.

The new statewide email system was supposed to be implemented this year but legislators, in particular Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, became concerned about the timeline and the cost. She has said she had become skeptical that the system would be completed on time, and concerned that ultimately not only would the contractor not meet savings projections, but that the project could actually end up costing the state money. Lawmakers de-funded it this year and cancelled the contract.

Xerox has denied that there were any serious problems, saying it was on track to move 115,000 total mailbox accounts from 33 individual email systems over to one and would have completed it by October, two months ahead of the contractual deadline.

While the company has declined to say what steps it may take now, it has hinted that it may sue over the issue.



David Royse, The News Service of Florida

Xerox Corp. is desperately trying to revive a plan to provide Florida with a unified email system for all state employees, hoping to salvage a $70 million deal that was scuttled by lawmakers this spring.

Lawmakers did not fund the project in this year's budget, although some agencies have already moved to the new system and Xerox has spent millions of dollars in upfront costs. The company hopes to get the joint Legislative Budget Commission to change the budget to allow for a scaled-back version of the plan, but the LBC has not scheduled a meeting.

Legislators passed a measure a few years ago requiring that various state agencies, which now use myriad email platforms, move to the same system by 2013.

In June of last year, the state signed a roughly $10 million-a-year contract with Affiliated Computer Services, a Xerox subsidiary, to provide a new Microsoft Exchange 2010 email system that would, according to the company save the state money.

How much the state would actually save and whether the project would be finished when promised, however, have been sticking points. Public comments from the state agency in charge of implementing the new system have moved around on the final savings figure --- and a key lawmaker says she isn't confident in any of the figures. The same lawmaker has expressed concern that the project couldn't be finished in the time promised under the initial contract.

The state's former technology chief who was in charge of implementing the contract told lawmakers late last year that the company would provide and run the system for about $13 million less over the life of the seven-year deal than what state agencies would cumulatively pay for the 30 separate employee email systems currently in use.

Xerox also has paid the upfront costs of getting the whole thing set up. The company has dropped about $30 million into the project, moving several agencies over to the new system, which already has about 5,000 users across the government.

The new system also was intended to solve another looming issue for the state, a new federal requirement for government email systems dealing with criminal justice information that was going to force the state's agencies to upgrade anyway.

But even as the company was trumpeting the new deal last summer, there were beginning to be some rumblings from lawmakers foreshadowing a problem with the project. At a meeting of the Legislative Budget Commission last June, Rep. Denise Grimsley, who shares the panel's chairmanship with Senate counterpart JD Alexander, laid into then-state Chief Information Officer David Taylor when the contract came up for approval.

"I'm very frustrated with the way this whole process has been managed," Grimsley said, charging that Taylor's office – which ran the project – had given lawmakers conflicting numbers on how much the system would save taxpayers and wasn't responsive to her questions.

"We kept getting different numbers from [the agency], and we would try to back into the numbers and weren't able to do so," Grimsley said later that day. "….Where are they getting these numbers from?"

But the LBC, which approves mid-year changes to the budget, okayed the proposal that day, leading observers to assume everything was fine. The contract was signed five days later.

And it didn't seem like there were any imminent reversals as this year's legislative session approached, as Taylor and the new email system started showing up in trade publications that cover tech in the public sector. In one such piece, in January in "Government Technology," there was no hint of a problem, as Taylor even talked about possibilities for expanding beyond the state agencies.

"We expect cities and counties to join within the next couple of years," Taylor was quoted as saying in that piece. "The contract also was written so other states can join."

So it caught backers of the project off guard when the state budget emerged in the waning days of the legislative session with no money for the project. The final touches of the budget – including whether it would have the email consolidation – were worked out by Grimsley, the House budget chairwoman, and Alexander, the Senate budget chairman.

In fact, the project's demise was sufficiently unforeseen that Taylor was quoted by another publication, "Government Computer News," in March saying the state was "ramping up to velocity migration" of emails to the new system. By the time the piece actually got into print, the budget was sitting on Gov. Rick Scott's desk – without money for the email system.

Taylor's whole office, the Agency for Enterprise Information Technology, was also stripped of its funding. Taylor is now at the Department of Children and Families.

Grimsley, who remains as chair of the LBC, said she still has concerns about the project, particularly what she sees as a lack of hard cost estimates. She's not completely ruling out some sort of solution, though.

"I'm open to looking at some alternative proposals," Grimsley, R-Sebring, said last week.

But it sounds like she's not looking for a simple fix. "They need to go back and start from the beginning and submit a new proposal to us," Grimsley said.

Grimsley contends that the company hasn't given her enough assurance it would be able to complete the work on time, and she still doesn't have confidence in the ultimate cost estimates.

In a presentation given by Taylor's office to lawmakers in November on the project, the projected savings for the state was given as $12.6 million.

Now, Xerox is furiously working to save the project.

Xerox spokesman Ken Ericson said the company has sought to sweeten the deal, though he declined to say exactly what concessions Xerox is offering to try to get the project moving.

"We've been working closely with the state and have added additional value to the contract," Ericson said. "We're very focused on a positive resolution, we don't expect this project to die."

Behind the scenes, Xerox representatives are working to get the issue back before the same Legislative Budget Commission that approved the project last year. But as of this week, the commission doesn't have any meetings scheduled to deal with the issue.

Ericson noted that eight agencies have already moved to the new system, and it wouldn't make sense for those agencies to have to switch back.

Besides, the law still calls for a unified system, Ericson said.

"The state has its law in place to implement a single system by 2013," he said. "We want to be there to help them."

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