My Open Records Request Reveals a Shocking $2 Million Price Tag for State of Wisconsin Web Site
In late December of 2008, the Journal Sentinel carried a somewhat frivolous story about the new Campaign Finance Information System (CFIS) web site developed for the Government Accountability Board (GAB) which had a picture of the Minneapolis skyline instead of the Madison skyline on it’s front page. It was a somewhat embarrassing snafu by caught by State Senator Jeff Plale of Milwaukee, summarily mocked, and everyone moved on.
However, after reading in the story that the CFIS web site had cost Wisconsin residents “nearly a million dollars” to build, I decided to dig a big deeper and found out that the company who ended up getting the CFIS contract, PCC Technology Group, resided in Connecticut. As someone who works in the tech industry and has several close friends and many acquaintances in the web development industry, I expressed concern that 1.) such a large amount of money was spent on a web site with what appeared to be very limited functionality and 2.) that a firm outside of Wisconsin had been chosen to do the work, despite a large number of qualified local firms.
So in early January I filed an open records request with the GAB to find out the details of the Request for Proposals (RFP) the GAB put out and just how they came to chose the eventual winner of the contact for the CFIS, PCC Technology Group of Connecticut. In late January I received a response to my open records request from the GAB and was surprised to find that the total cost of the CFIS web site – again, a site that myself and other industry experts have pointed out is limited in functionality and complexity – wasn’t $1 million as originally reported in the original Journal Sentinel article, but double that!
A $2 million price tag for the web site that first gained attention because it had a picture of the wrong city’s skyline.
To say $2 million is a ridiculous price for a web site that has less functionality than my weblog is an understatement. After spending a considerable amount of time going over the documents I got from the GAB in response to my open records request, it became clear to me that PCC Technology Group was, to put it mildly, fleecing the people of Wisconsin.
Below are some results from my analysis of the winning RFP response PCC Technology Group submitted, followed by some closing thoughts about this project, it’s costs, and some recommendations to avoid situations like this in the future.
PCC Technology Group’s Winning RFP Response
An abbreviated explanation of how a State agency picks a “winner” from all the RFP responses it gets from interested parties: The RFP has criteria that each of the companies respond to in their RFP response. Each of those criteria are grouped into categories in which a certain number of points is assigned. For example, the “Technical requirements” might have a total maximum value of 100 points. For every RFP response, all of the criteria in each category are given a point score out of that maximum by a group of anonymous evaluators. You then average the scores of the evaluators for each question or category, add the average scores up, and the RFP response with the most points wins the contract.
I’ll be posting all the documents I received shortly, but here are some of the more interesting things I discovered.
As I looked through the documents I received, the first thing I discovered was that only 2 vendors RFP responses were scored. Of all the points awarded to the winner (8,570 out of 10,000), the majority of those came from having the lowest cost, which they received 100%, or 2000, of the points possible because there were only two bidders. Even though the proposal from PCC TG was the “lowest” at just over $2 million it scored the maximum number of points possible for it’s cost proposal. Here’s a screenshot of how the two vendors scored:
Where PCC really won the bid was on it’s points awarded for “Business System Requirements” where it got twice as many points as the only other vendor that responded. I was not able to get the RFP response from the other vendor so I can’t comment on how good or bad their response was and if the number of points they were awarded for that section seemed fair, but in this section PCC basically submitted a snapshot of their project plan.
That snapshot is where you get a good idea of why this web site would cost the State of Wisconsin $2 million. In the snapshot of the project plan, PCC explains how much time/resources it will take to accomplish each of it’s deliverables. For example, PCC plans on 120 hours to write the project plan itself and develop a kickoff agenda. That’s three full weeks at 40 hours/week to develop the project plan and write an agenda for a single meeting. Planning takes time, but three entire weeks?
Another three weeks, 15 full days, to give the website the ability to download reports as a Microsoft Word document. Four weeks, 20 full days of development time at who knows what hourly rate, to upload Microsoft Word documents. That’s the one thing missing by the way: the billable rate for PCC Technology Groups employees. They simply charged Wisconsin a flat rate.
Incredible considering I was able to find the code to accomplish the same task in three minutes for free on this web development site. Yet we were charged at least several thousand dollars for the same thing by PCC Technology Group.
Folks, that is seven full weeks – 35 days! – of billable time so Microsoft Word documents, perhaps the most common format in the business world, could be uploaded and downloaded when I found the code for free on the web in three minutes. Incredible.
While the developers of the web site would be spending their time on uploading and download MS Word documents, the “project manager” for this web site would be busy too. PCC Technology Group’s own project plan has 1900 hours built in to the cost of the web site for “project management”, the deliverables of which are listed as “weekly status reports”, “Meeting minutes”, “monthly steering committee meetings” and “monthly risk and issue analysis report”. Nineteen hundred (1900) hours – two hundred and forty days worth of eight hours days – billed to the taxpayers of Wisconsin for status reports and meeting minutes?!
While there are many more examples in the project plan proposed by PCC Technology Group of this kind of billable time padding, it’s certainly the most egregious.
For a web site with a very clear and defined set of functionality – which isn’t terribly complex by modern web standards and as I’ve pointed out numerous times is less complex than this very weblog – the vast majority of the TWO MILLION DOLLAR price tag for this site went not for the development of the site itself, but to pay for things like over inflated project management costs. The actual software – which as numerous web development professionals who’ve analyzed the CFIS web site have said is nothing more than auto-generated template code – for the CFIS web site was 1/7th the total cost of the $2 million dollar bid from PCC Technology Group.
While every good product has some component of project management involved, the relatively low complexity of this web site in no way justifies the vast amount of resources proposed by PCC, and accepted by the GAB, for something as nebulous as “project management”. But it’s a heck of a way to make a lot of money off a web site that otherwise would run 1/10th the cost.
And that’s the real problem I see here: an apparent lack of oversight by anyone with a modicum of industry experience who would have called the proposal for the CFIS web site from PCC Technology Group for the outrageously expensive fleecing it is.
I can’t help but think that one of the reasons a company from Connecticut was eventually chosen was the desire to keep that fact as far away from Wisconsin as possible. After all, what company here in Wisconsin wouldn’t be called out by it’s local peers in the industry if it were pulling the same thing?
And that is the second point I’d like everyone – especially decision makers – to take away from this. Keeping work like this with any of the well qualified web development firms in Wisconsin not only creates good high tech jobs and spurs our local economy, it also makes it less likely that the State will end up over paying for something as relatively simple as the CFIS web site. While nothing can be done to rectify the amount of money we needlessly spent on the relatively simply CFIS web site, it can serve as an important lesson for future State projects, especially related to the Internet.
To those of you reading this who are concerned as I am about the amount of money this web site cost Wisconsin residents and have the power to do something about it, there needs to be some serious discussion about how we provide proper oversight on future projects that was so desperately lacking in this one.
- Total amount awarded to to PCC Technology Group for CFIS web site: $1.8 million
- Grand Total Cost of Campaign Finance Information System (http://cfis.wi.gov): $2,002,806
- People who would be outraged at cost of CFIS web site if PCC Tech. Group hadn’t incorrectly used a skyline image of Minneapolis instead of Madison: 0
- Number of other State web sites for which Wisconsin has severely overpaid: unknown