Someone e-mailed me in response to my previous blog post, and asked what have I been doing on Wikipedia. Most of what I have been doing has been on OrthodoxWiki.org, rather than on the main Wikipedia... although I have tweak a few articles on that one too.
Here are some of the articles I have worked on in a way that went beyond just a minor tweak:
I've been a long time user of Wikipedia and its Orthodox counterpart, the Orthodox Wiki. I realize of course the limitations of using an open source encyclopedia, and I have at times been irritated by some of the misinformation I have seen in some articles on Wikipedia. Recently, Andrew Keen, commented about Wikipedia (Newsweek 3/26 p.16), that it was "no more reliable than the output of a million monkeys banging away at their typewriters." While I agree that one has to be cautious with what you read on Wikipedia, and realize that it is not on the same level as a more traditional encyclopedia, the fact remains that it is widely used... and very often, the information is quite good. One just has to learn to be discriminating, and to develop an eye for texts that are not supported by references or sufficient evidence. There is in fact a review process on Wikipedia, and generally speaking, the people who do the reviewing do know what they are talking about in the given area that they work on.
Rather than curse the occasional darkness one finds in Wikipedia articles, I have started working on editing and composing them myself. I have long been attracted to the possibilities of hyper-lined texts, as you can see in my Icon FAQ article. Footnotes are great, but being able to link to entire articles that are immediately accessible is a wonderful advantage of online articles.
I would encourage others to give it a try. It is not as difficult to do as you might think.
From the very start of the Accenture/HHSC Privitization debacle, there has been one voice in the media that had this whole thing pegged -- Carlos Guerra of the San Antonio Express. Those who were watching things unravel from the inside had at least some consolation that someone with a voice in the main stream media "got it". I heard later that he was getting some grief at his paper, because he wrote so frequently on the subject... and then unfortunately the frequency of his commentaries on this subject declined sharply. He now has a new piece in which he get's to tell everyone he was right. I am happy for him in that respect, though it is clear that he takes no delight in the fact that so many people had to be hurt before the powers that be finally decided to change course.
This whole disaster was not only preventable, and predictable -- it was predicted by many many voices, my own included.
Having first written in May 2003 about what was coming, I wasn't surprised Tuesday morning when Will Rogers of the Texas State Employees Union wrote to say that "Accenture and (the Texas Health and Human Services Commission) will jointly announce that the contract will be 'unraveled,' with each party 'going its own way.'"
Nor did I gag when HHSC and Accenture officials tried to put a positive spin on the dissolution of possibly the nation's largest contract to privatize a state's social services safety net.
I wasn't alone.
"I hate to say that I told them so, but I did — for four years," sighed state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio.
It began when the 2003 Legislature faced a $10 billion budget shortfall and the ideologues in charge were intent on rolling back taxes instead of raising any. So they opted to make up the shortfall largely on the backs of Texas' most vulnerable.
House Bill 2292 was a "reform" and "modernization" of Texas' health and human services safety net, they said, and it would save Texas hundreds of millions through privatization and by being more businesslike. After all, business does everything better than government.
A close reading of 132-page HB2292 revealed the massive reorganization of Texas' social services agencies really was a convenient cover for its more nefarious provisions.
Any real savings, I wrote then, will accrue from slashing or eliminating benefits, unconscionably stiffening eligibility standards and systematically making applying for benefits so frustrating that, needs notwithstanding, people will become discouraged and quit seeking benefits.
At the heart of HB2292 was authorization for HHSC to privatize enrollment for CHIP and Medicaid, and other critical safety net programs.
But a year later, HHSC insisted $177 million would be saved by contracting for four privately run centers to take applications by phone, fax or the Internet, and the firing of 3,377 of the state's 7,864 trained field workers and the shuttering of 217 of the 381 field offices.
Bermuda-based Accenture headed the consortium awarded the $899 million call center contract. But problems surfaced early on, such as interminable hold times and operators giving applicants incorrect information. Software broke down and documents were lost, some of which were inexplicably faxed to a Seattle warehouse.
The new system's roll-out repeatedly was postponed, the call centers' workers had to be retrained, and soon after the trained state workers started getting pink slips — by e-mail, no less — many had to be rehired.
"As (House) Government Reform chair, we had Accenture and HHSC testify, and they kept saying, 'It's getting better, everything is working great'" Uresti says, "when, obviously, that wasn't the truth, or 200,000 kids wouldn't have fallen off CHIP."
And it was shrinking CHIP rolls that set off the outcry that finally has resulted in Accenture getting the boot.
But that's hardly all that has gone wrong.
"This has done more damage to Texas than you can imagine," Uresti adds. "Everyone talks about CHIP and Medicaid because they recognize them; but this has also affected our seniors, our mentally retarded, our disabled, pregnant moms and on and on and on."
And aside from the human cost, this disaster may end up costing hundreds of millions after local indigent health-care costs are factored in.
But there also are lessons.
"We want to balance the budget, but you don't give out a $900 million contract — no company would — without having safeguards in place, without having performance measures and if they aren't met, we cancel the contract, instead of giving them more time," Uresti adds.
Details of what Texas will do now seem to be unknown.
But Uresti's characterization of this debacle is quite apt: "We put all our eggs in one basket, and they dropped the basket."
Nearly every state senator has signed a letter asking the inspector general of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to investigate the failed contract with the company hired to privatize the state's social services eligibility system.
"There are significant questions concerning the contract, and the members of the Texas Senate want them answered," said Sen. Bob Deuell, who circulated the letter.
Deuell, a Republican from Greenville, said he also plans to ask the state auditor to look into the contract.
Sen. Kevin Eltife signed the letter.
"We should demand a full accounting of the Accenture contract," Eltife said. "This venture that was to save the taxpayers millions now looks to have costs taxpayers millions."
The commission announced Tuesday it was ending its contract with the Texas Access Alliance, a group of companies led by Accenture LLP. The letter was released Wednesday.
The consulting giant was hired in 2005 to - among other things - run a new computer system allowing Texans to apply for Medicaid, food stamps and other benefits over the phone, online or in person.
Problems plagued the project from the start, prompting more than a year of harsh rebukes from lawmakers, gubernatorial candidates and advocates for poor families. The commission announced plans to scale back the contract in December, but the two sides couldn't reach an agreement, Executive Commissioner Albert Hawkins said.
The letter, signed by 30 of the 31 state senators, asks the inspector general to conduct an integrity review and, if warranted, a full-scale investigation of both the new computer system and the contract for running it.
Commission spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman said the agency will provide any information that is requested.
"It's hard to imagine that there's a document in the building that hasn't already been provided to every losing candidate for governor, the employees union and IBM's attorneys, but we'll keep the copy machine warmed up and ready to go," she added.
The state's $899 million contract with Accenture was part of a massive effort to make it easier for people to apply for benefits.
The project as a whole was supposed to save the state nearly $650 million over five years. Hawkins said Wednesday he still expects the state to save money, but he could not estimate how much.
Accenture began running the new computer system in Travis and Hays counties a year ago and it was supposed to be implemented in all 254 Texas counties by the end of the year. But technical and operational problems forced Hawkins to indefinitely delay the rollout last spring.
Problems also cropped up when the Texas Access Alliance took over processing applications for the Children's Health Insurance Program, the state's low-cost health insurance program for the children of the working poor. Enrollment dipped below 300,000 for the first time since the program's infancy, but has since rebounded.
Advocates for poor families said contract workers lost CHIP applications and other paperwork, gave contradictory instructions about submitting information missing from their files and failed to credit payments to their accounts.
Democratic State Rep. Patrick Rose, who chairs the House human services committee, said his panel is committed to figuring out what went wrong with the Accenture contract and what needs to be done to prevent it from happening again.
AUSTIN – Texas' rush to privatize eligibility screening for such programs as Medicaid and food stamps was dealt a huge blow Tuesday as the state announced that it would sever its relationship with the lead contractor.
State social services czar Albert Hawkins said protracted disagreements over money and changes to the private company's role persuaded him to end the state's five-year contract with the U.S. unit of Bermuda-based Accenture Ltd. more than three years early.
The contract had put Texas on track to be the first state to mostly privatize the process of determining residents' eligibility for social programs. But a pilot effort to combine contractors' screening of applicants for Medicaid, food stamps and welfare with the already-privatized Children's Health Insurance Program swiftly encountered turbulence in two Central Texas counties early last year.
Further rollout of the new system, which relies heavily on four privately run call centers, has been postponed repeatedly as applications and enrollment fees were lost and thousands of families complained of abruptly canceled health coverage for their children.
Mr. Hawkins insisted that the state will carefully assess whether to continue outsourcing some functions or pull most back into state government. But his move underscored the fact that the deal hasn't saved any of the $646 million that officials promised.
"The opportunity for savings is delayed until we get the model fully in place," he said. His confirmation by the Senate to a third two-year term as head of the Health and Human Services Commission has been held up, in part because of problems with the call centers.
For now, little will change for Texans applying for services. Mr. Hawkins said he expects the duties will be handed off by Nov. 1. A separate negotiation will now begin on how much the contractor will be paid. Through Feb. 28, the state had paid it $186 million, said a spokeswoman for Mr. Hawkins.
Mr. Hawkins and Accenture spokesman Jim McAvoy dismissed suggestions that the new eligibility system's problems should curb state leaders' enthusiasm for outsourcing.
"I don't really think this is about privatization," Mr. Hawkins said. "It's about still moving forward and achieving the goals of transformation that we set out for our eligibility system," which he said hadn't changed much since the late 1960s.
Mr. McAvoy said, "This has less to say about privatization than about how difficult large [information technology] projects are."
Democrats and state employee groups, though, claimed vindication of their 2003 warnings that the privatization effort would fail – especially when combined with budget cuts and tighter eligibility rules in CHIP, the state-federal health insurance program for children in working-poor families.
"Far too many Texas parents have been left to depend on NyQuil and prayer for health insurance because their children were unfairly denied CHIP coverage," said state Democratic Chairman Boyd Richie. "Republicans have wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on dysfunctional private call centers."
Ed Sills, spokesman for the Texas AFL-CIO, called outsourcing of sensitive government duties "an inherently flawed concept in which the public trust is traded for the corporate profit motive. The Accenture fiasco proved us right at every stage."
Mr. McAvoy responded: "We had problems with the initial pilot. We stabilized it."
Republican leaders also played down the decision to end the Accenture contract.
House Speaker Tom Craddick said that while he expects Mr. Hawkins to fix problems in the new eligibility system, he still likes outsourcing.
"Privatizations in a lot of areas of government have been real positive, have done a lot of great services for us, saving dollars and allowing us to increase our benefits to different programs and facilities," said Mr. Craddick, a Republican who lured one of the call centers to his hometown of Midland.
Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, said she just wants a "user-friendly" system for poor people.
"Whether the state is performing the function or a vendor, the critical point is that we make it as convenient as possible for citizens to enroll in our state services and that we make the best possible use of online tools to help in that process," she said.
Rep. Patrick Rose, chairman of the House Human Services Committee, has asked Mr. Hawkins to testify Thursday about the project's past and future.
"The Legislature needs to pass legislation to prevent future mistakes," said Mr. Rose, D-Dripping Springs.
Mr. Hawkins said he had informed legislative budget writers he might need some extra state employees, depending on how much he decides to dial back the outsourcing.
Mr. Hawkins said he was not sure whether call centers would continue to be staffed by employees of Reston, Va.-based Maximus Inc. – an Accenture subcontractor – or by state workers.
He expressed confidence that after the state's review he would continue to hire private companies for a variety of technical support tasks, such as printing and mailing notices to aid recipients, and a Midland operation that copies and scans applicants' personal financial documents into computer systems.
However, Mr. Hawkins said, there would be a "direct trade-off" between spending on state employees and payments to contractors – and little if any impact on the budget.
Advocates for poor families have said the state's original plan for outsourcing got rid of too many of the state eligibility workers who know the programs' differing and often very complex rules about who can qualify. Call center operators, who make between $12 and $15 an hour, initially didn't grasp many of the nuances. Most had to be retrained.
Mr. Hawkins said the whole idea was to test how much could be outsourced before going statewide with a new system.
"We didn't have it calibrated right," he acknowledged. "There needed to be more of those things retained by the state."
The tinkering has ended long times on hold and dropped calls, he said. But critics say it still takes far too long to process applications for Medicaid and food stamps.
In November, Williamson County entered the new system, joining Travis and Hays counties. A new rollout schedule announced Tuesday calls for 28 additional Central Texas counties to be added over the next five months, with Hill County the farthest north.
Mr. Hawkins said no state employees would be fired or demoted for miscalculating how much work should be privatized.
Mr. Hawkins said his agency and the Accenture-led group, the Texas Access Alliance, were unable to agree on financial terms and a revised division of labor that would be needed to carry out a handshake deal they announced in December.
Under that deal, state workers would perform certain functions originally envisioned for the private sector. Also, the state would slash the contract to $543 million, from $899 million. The Dec. 21 deal also called for the contract, originally for five years, to end in 2008 – two years early.
Staff writer Karen Brooks contributed to this report.