Look out! Maine installs computer

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Call us gun-shy. Call us skeptical. Call us concerned.

But, it seems, when the state of Maine switches computer systems, major chaos often results.

Soon, the Maine Revenue Services will begin installing a large new computer system to collect taxes.

In this case, the state has every motivation to get things right. After all, taxes are the mother’s milk of state government. Without them, the wheels of government would grind to a halt. Of course, many Mainers might think that an improvement.

But, there are plenty of reasons for ordinary citizens and businesses to be concerned about this installation. We all pay taxes, and being dunned for the correct amount is critical to us all.

Similar computer upgrades have led to large-scale pain and dislocations for Mainers.

Problems with a Department of Health and Human Services installation became apparent in 2005 when MaineCare service providers stopped receiving payments owed them. The billing and payment problems created cash-flow issues for hundreds of providers around the state while DHHS spent more than a year trying to iron out its computer bugs.

In the Secretary of State’s Office, $11 million was spent installing a new system to handle its data. One contractor was fired, and the project was hampered for years by delays.

There are some reasons for guarded optimism. Dick Thompson, the state’s chief information officer and the man responsible for upgrading the MRS system, says lessons have been learned.

The state has been “deliberate” in investigating its needs and options, he says, pointing out that the installation has been studied for two years. Of course, with a big bureaucracy, you’re never sure if that’s really a year-and-a-half of foot-dragging and six months of work.

The state, he says, also has a new structure for dealing with information technology which concentrates expertise once spread across many state agencies in one office.

The state also plans on building in some basic safeguards that should have been obvious in previous installations. It plans to keep the old system available and running until it’s shown the new system is working. The contract also calls for thorough testing of the new computer system before it goes online.

These seem like no-brainers, but the new DHHS system was seriously flawed when it went into operation, and the old system was unavailable.

The MRS system is 12 years old and badly outdated. We’ll have to content ourselves with hoping this installation goes more smoothly than others.

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