By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—After reporting on the troubled eSTART time and attendance system, the Alabama Political Reporter received an email from a Director at the Department of Finance saying, “eSTART is the best thing to happen to state government in years. Ziegler is clueless and needs to fire his staff if they think eSTART will decrease efficiencies and increase workloads. I was able to downsize staff after the implementation and eSTART is paperless, which is another bonus. All state agencies will be on eSTART by the end of the year…I wish you would obtain all the facts before publishing.”
APR searched and found more facts in the form of four letters, in addition to State Auditor Jim Zeigler’s. The letters are significant because the authors were high-ranking government officials expressing their concerns over flaws and limitations in the eSTART system, as well as the added burden on personnel.
Letters addressed to Acting Finance Director Bill Newton and others citing the problems each agency had identified, were written by Attorney General Luther Strange, Agriculture and Industry Commissioner John McMillan, then State Superintendent of Education Dr. Tommy Bice and State Personnel Director Jackie Graham.
General Strange’s letter from March outlines how the system was not configured to meet the needs of his various employees, and also pointed out the additional cost his office would incur. “About this time last year, we were contacted by staff with eSTART to arrange a time to implement the interface in our Office. All supervisors attended mandatory training, and it was at this time we fully realized that eSTART would not address our business processes. At such time, we were informed that we would be responsible for purchasing licenses for managers and mobile users, with a much higher cost for managers who required a mobile license.”
Strange lists at least 13 different areas where eSTART would present problems, including, “If eSTART goes down, which reportedly happened often, and employees need to clock in or out, the manager had to go into eSTART and manually make corrections.”
State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice, in February, wrote, ” As you know, our agency is in the midst of implementing the STAARS system…My concerns as noted by other agency directors are unexplained entries coming from eSTART into pay and leave records, negative transactions, prior period entries changing current pay records with no authorization and a general inability to support the records coming from eSTART… As you know, we have a great deal of Federal funds and grants that have to be tracked correctly. We cannot afford to waste time and money correcting or researching obvious system problems.”
He added, “Furthermore, we feel it would be ill advised for us to proceed when the head of State Personnel, the agency we depend on for advice, no longer feels the system is accurate or dependable. This seems like a red flag to us that we can’t ignore.”
State Personnel Director Graham, in correspondence as early September 2015, expressed grave concerns that, “eSTART only functions as a system to record attendance and leave usage. eSTART is not an on-line real time system and as such cannot ensure that documents pass all necessary controls.”
More warning signs came from Commissioner McMillan. “It is our understanding that there are many issues and inconsistencies with the system at present,” he wrote in March of this year. McMillan also indicated that there would be many unique areas that the department would have to address, “namely the approximately 250 seasonal workers who work in peanut fields at various buying points. Additionally, the large number of employees who work in the field throughout the state have limited or no mobile access in many areas of the state in which they conduct their day to day responsibilities.” McMillan expresses frustration because calls made toaKronos were not about the system retuned.
General Strange seemed to summarize the fears, thoughts and resolve expressed to Newton and his colleagues saying, “Overall, implementation of the eSTART interface appears to have serious issues…I do not see that it is beneficial to have a system that promotes decreased efficiencies and provides inaccurate information. For these reasons, and until such time as customization of eSTART can accommodate the diverse needs of this agency and is formally accepted by this agency, we will not implement the eSTART system.”
The multi-million dollar package forced on departments big and small may work in the Department of Finance, where Newton and Assistant Finances Director Rex McDowell made the decision to purchase and implement the system, but others see things very differently.