CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The end won’t exactly be on time, but the last leg of a long journey is about to get under way in earnest for state government.
Perhaps fittingly, the main agency affected by this odyssey’s conclusion will be the state Division of Transportation.
That agency is the focus of the final phase of the wvOasis project, the massive computer system switchover that West Virginia state government took the first steps to conceive in 2011.
Project planners at first thought wvOasis might be mostly ready by fall of 2014 and at one point thought might be completed by June 2017. Now it’s looking like the conclusion will be middle of 2018.
The project has been meant to update and inter-connect the state’s various, aging computer systems into something called an “Enterprise Resource Planning System.” It’s supposed to help the state’s computer systems talk to each other, to help state employees better track data and to manage those with whom the state does business, such as vendors and retirees.
“It is big. It is complex,” said Gale Given, the state’s chief technology officer who serves as a liaison from the Department of Administration to the wvOasis project.
The project has been so big that right from the start the state contracted with a company called CGI to be the vendor deploying the work but also contracted with another consultant called ISG to help the state understand the process.
One of the first newspaper headlines about the endeavor was “Computer system presents challenge,” which was probably an understatement. That story noted that just getting the contract ready to sign was a multi-year effort.
“This is a project bigger than probably anything, from an IT viewpoint, the state has ever done,” Given said.
There have been various lags along the way, but one of the biggest was during “Phase D,” which dealt with the state payroll. That part got complicated — and hit state employees in the wallet — when a legislative audit showed the state would be paying an additional $50 million over 10 years because of a calculation error as state employees moved to a new biweekly pay schedule.
The calculations have been fixed but Phase D, which was so big that it was broken down into three waves, is still under way. It’s expected to be complete by May or June.
That leaves Phase E, the final phase that mostly covers the Transportation department and its many projects and contracts. Parts of Phase E are already under way but the bulk has been on pause while the kinks in the earlier phases were smoothed out.
“It has definitely started,” Given said. “There’s just a lot left to do.”
Given said in some ways the delays have been helpful because they have given the Transportation Department time to more thoroughly plan how its various computer programs should interact.
“It’s probably an opportunity rather than just a problem,” she said.
One factor the Transportation Department has had more time to consider is increased standards for compliance with Federal Highway Administration to track the federal dollars that flow into the state for road and bridge projects.
“By delaying and having some of these new requirements gives us the opportunity to do it all at once,” Given said.
The coming computer changes are not just upgrades; they’re also essential, said Keith Chapman, the business manager for the Transportation Department, and Greg Bailey, the chief engineer for the agency.
“In the big picture, the real gold nugget is to get Phase E implemented,” Bailey said.
Chapman noted that the current computer system in the Transportation Department was installed three decades ago and then updated over the years.
“We’re replacing a system that was built in-house and put into effect in 1986,” Chapman said. “It’s met our needs.”
Bailey added, “It’s dying very fast and will not meet the needs of the Federal Highway Administration.”
The U.S. government is keeping a close eye on the overhaul because the Transportation Department needs to abide by certification standards requiring efficiency and automation for the reimbursement of federal highways dollars.
“We have to be able to go through a transparent accounting process, show all those charges are appropriate on that particular project,” Bailey said. “We have to be able to make that money flow. That quick turnaround is highly dependent on FHWA (the Federal Highway Administration) certifying the computer program so they can be assured. They have to be confident that what they’re receiving out of a bill has been certified.”
The computer switcharoo also should help the Transportation Department, as well as their federal counterparts, better compare the value of construction and maintenance projects.
One related computer program upgrade, outside the original scope of Phase E, is an asset management program. The Transportation Department has used some time while implementation has paused to map out how the asset management program will communicate with the programs associated with Phase E.
“We’ll reach in there and mine that data to make better decisions,” Bailey said. “We’ll look at it strategically.”
Department of Highways staffers like Bailey and Chapman have been mapping out how their computer needs should function for computer programmers to implement. Once the programming is done, the system will be turned over for testing and then training.
“Training is going to be a monumental thing,” Chapman said. “We have to make sure our people have training or else the system doesn’t have value.”
Once the system is in place, it might offer capabilities that lend the Transportation Department the ability to reorganize its staff. And after that, it might be time to take on whatever the next big project is.
But before that, Bailey said, “We want and we have to complete Phase E.”