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Nancy Smith

Yes, DEO's Jesse Panuccio IS Getting CONNECT Job Done

March 27, 2014 - 7:00pm

Looking at the same March 20 letter from the United States Department of Labor as the Times/Herald editors looked at, I can't for the life of me find the accusations of incompetence against Jesse Panuccio and the Department of Economic Opportunity that they can.

I've read it three times.

Gay Gilbert, an unemployment insurance administrator for the federal Department of Labor (DOL) wrote the DEO director a two-page letter explaining how DOL understood installation of the new CONNECT computer system to be going.

It is neither accusatory nor laudatory. It is entirely matter-of-fact. Read the letter for yourself in the attachment below.

Yet, Michael Van Sickler of the Herald/Times, in his story of March 25, is clearly annoyed that the Legislature isn't rushing to throw Panuccio out. He pulls out a number of quotes from the letter to show the DOL isn't buying a word Panuccio said:

SCOLDING QUOTE No. 1: '"We plan to conduct periodic phone calls to continue to monitor work as needed. While we commend DEO for improving access to (unemployment insurance) benefits after it implemented the CONNECT system, more work needs to be done."'

SCOLDING QUOTE No. 2: '"...the auto-adjudication function, which is expected to improve DEO productivity with regard to claims processing, is still in development and projected for implementation this month."'

SCOLDING QUOTE No. 3: '"Because of the significant technical challenges that occurred during your implementation and because of the number of fixes that have had to be made to the CONNECT system," Gilbert said Panuccio should hire a consultant to determine how well CONNECT was performing.'

But, I could produce pertinent quotes from the letter to make the opposite case:

GLOWING QUOTE No. 1: "Over the last few months, DEO has worked collaboratively with DOL's technical assistance team to improve DEO's ability to pay claimants 'when due' and to ensure access to UI (unemployment insurance) benefits by improving its contact center operations."

GLOWING QUOTE No. 2: "The technical fixes DEO implemented with its information technology vendor and the additional hiring conducted since the first of the year have positively impacted DEO's ability to pay claims timely ..."

GLOWING QUOTE No. 3: "We also understand that DEO has made significant progress with its vendor to make the necessary technical fixes to the system."

This letter isn't a Department of Labor "gotcha." It seems to me Gilbert sent it because close scrutiny under these circumstances is standard operating procedure -- and she was simply advising the DEO that her department would stick around as an overseer for awhile. As you know, thousands of unemployed Floridians had to wait for their monthly checks until the worst of the early problems with CONNECT's massive behind-schedule installation were sorted.Not until early February could Panuccio say "we're almost glitch-free."

What started out as a $68 million job ended up closer to $63 million because of the $4.5 million in restitution the contractor paid for missed deadlines.

Panuccio told me Monday that right along, DEO and the Department of Labor have had a good relationship. In fact, he showed me a Feb. 20 request from the DOL asking Florida to advise California on how his office "went about identifying continued claims that were pending adjudication pursuant to UIPL No. 04-01 and how you handled that process."

The 33-year-old executive director, who oversees 1,621 employees and an $872.7 million budget, said he agreed with Gilbert in her letter -- more work doesneed to be done. He claims he never said installation was over. "It's inevitable the system will see something it hasn't seen before. But the high-impact defects have been fixed, the large-scale glitches we saw in the past are gone, that's just a fact."

As for the large-scale auto-adjudication function, Panuccio said it was a "change order" -- it wasn't part of the original specs. "There will always be change orders," he told me. "Every time something changes -- for example, if Florida decides to continue unemployment compensation -- the system has to be changed, or adapted."

Here's the big picture to keep in mind when assessing Panuccio's performance to convert from a clunky, outmoded computer system built in the 1970s. It's been quite a journey:

Prior to the launch of CONNECT, 48,000 claimants had an active case in adjudication. The number increased to at least 60,000 in the first two months after CONNECT's launch. Today, that number stands at 3,000, an active caseload beneath any in recent memory.

The executive director says this decrease is due to a number of factors, and the expiration of long-term benefits (EUC) is not the most significant. "First, it is undisputed that technical fixes and additional staff allowed DEO to greatly increase adjudication productivity," he says.

"Second, the EUC issues in the active caseload after the launch of CONNECT still had to be adjudicated. And third, most adjudication issues arise during initial claims and continued claims for state benefits," he explains.

He says less than 35 percent of all adjudication claims before the CONNECT launch and expiration of EUC centered around EUC issues.

I think it must have been a blow to McClatchey newspapers and their Tampa Bay Times partners when Panuccio won a rousing vote of confidence during one of his Senate committee confirmation hearings.

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said, "I think what helps is when this issue happened with the website, unlike some other areas in the state and Washington that just pointed fingers we took ownership of it and we fixed it. And we addressed it. And I think that that, in my opinion, is leadership."

Such gushiness on Panuccio's behalf probably didn't sit well.

Nor has the Legislature so far paid any attention to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who also wants Panuccio's head, and why wouldn't he? For the Democrats, taking a poke at Gov. Rick Scott's senior staff is the next best thing to taking a poke at Rick Scott. It must be frustrating for the Democrats and their newspapers when nobody in leadership cares what Nelson thinks.

The Herald has already called on the Legislature to fire Panuccio.

Van Sickler in his story laments that all committee members voted for Panuccio's confirmation except for Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. Latvala didn't vote. But, remarks the writer hopefully, Latvala "chairs the Senate's ethics and elections committee, which is the last stop for Panuccio's confirmation before a floor vote."

Jesse Panuccio runs an agency that combines the state's economic, workforce and community development efforts. It's a new approach, it's helped expedite economic development projects to fuel job creation. That's what the governor wants, who knows, maybe that's what Florida needed, and through the screw-ups of the vast CONNECT system installation -- a baptism of fire -- the energetic young executive director has learned many valuable lessons.

Why would anybody want to throw that away? Panuccio's experience, trying as it was, has real value to the state of Florida.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews or 228-282-2423.

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