September 28, 2005
It is often said that government should be run like a business.
If a corporation had contracted with a consultant to create an essential database of information, and if that consultant had screwed up the project so badly that a major deadline was going to be missed and more than $50 million in revenue could be lost as a result, the corporation would declare the consultant to be in material breach of its contract and take the appropriate moves to end the relationship.
That is precisely what the state Elections Board should do with Accenture, the out-of-state firm that was hired to create a statewide voter database.
Accenture, which has a dubious track record of working with other states in this area, appears to have created a mess of the project in Wisconsin. Even Elections Board Executive Director Kevin Kennedy, who has championed the $13.9 million contract with Accenture, now admits that he is frustrated with the firm. And rightly so! Because the database is not expected to be completed and functional by the federal deadline of Dec. 31, Wisconsin could lose up to $50.4 million in federal Help America Vote Act funds.
As of now, Wisconsin is the only state in the nation that has acknowledged that it expects to miss the HAVA deadline, a circumstance that is as embarrassing as it was avoidable. Legislators, academics, clean election activists and others warned that Accenture was a bad choice for the state contract, but Kennedy and the Elections Board went ahead with a deal that was far costlier and riskier than necessary.
Now state Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, and Mike McCabe, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, who were among those who warned against contracting with Accenture, are suggesting that the Elections Board should start the process to end this misguided "partnership."
Pocan and McCabe have asked members of the Elections Board to act on the non-compliance language in the contract with Accenture. They argue that this action would allow the state to avoid jeopardizing the Help America Vote Act funds.
"The state Elections Board has told us they will likely not meet the federal deadline required to have the statewide voter database in effect, thus jeopardizing tens of millions of dollars to Wisconsin," explains Pocan. "We need to act now on the contract language which allows us to get compliance or cancel the contract. Continued foot dragging can be extremely costly to Wisconsin taxpayers."
Pocan and McCabe are right.
If the board were to declare a "material breach" in the contract, Accenture would be given 60 days to cure the breach. A failure to do so on Accenture's part would allow the Elections Board to terminate the contract without penalty.
By taking these steps now, the state would either ensure that the promised work is finished on time and well, or it would clearly identify the source of the problem as the contractor - a move that would likely win a reprieve from the federal deadline and allow Wisconsin to ultimately collect the $50.4 million.
If the Accenture contract does need to be canceled, the Elections Board can reassure the feds by promising to get the voter database produced following the model established by the neighboring state of Minnesota, which has a similar population and similar election laws. Minnesota got its list finished and in place at a cost of roughly $5 million.
Instead of contracting with a big out-of-state firm, Minnesota used state workers and limited outside consulting help to get the job done. Wisconsin should have taken the same route from the start. If we are lucky, that may still be possible.
Like a corporation that realizes its own workers would have done a better job than the pricey outside consultants, Wisconsin has learned a valuable lesson from a bad experience. Now we need to act on that lesson by holding Accenture accountable.
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