Iowa’s use of pandemic aid for 2nd IT project draws scrutiny

Iowa’s Use Of Pandemic Aid For 2nd It Project Draws Scrutiny

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Iowa is planning to use millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief funds on a long-term plan to improve data management across state agencies, a second information technology project that may not fit the intended purpose of the aid.

State and federal auditors this week told Iowa’s executive branch to return millions of dollars to the state’s $1.25 billion coronavirus relief fund that have been spent on a new accounting and human resources computer system. They determined the project championed by Gov. Kim Reynolds was not an appropriate expense, noting that a $20 million contract with the vendor was signed before the coronavirus emerged.

A state report shows that the same agency responsible for that project, the Office of the Chief Information Officer, has been given $16.9 million in federal pandemic relief funds for a second technology initiative that was under discussion before COVID-19.

In its strategic plan drafted last year, the office said it would adopt a master data management strategy to standardize how agencies collect information about their customers so data sets can be more easily compared and analyzed.

“By bringing the state’s various data sources together, constituent agencies can gain a more holistic understanding of the needs of Iowans today and in the future,” the office said of the plan.

So far, it has spent about $40,000 on the project out of $16.9 million in coronavirus relief funds set aside to date by the Iowa Department of Management.

The state last month selected Sense Corp. for a 5-year, multimillion dollar contract to create and install a new cloud-based data management platform. The state has the option to extend the deal for up to five more years.

The state’s 128-page request for proposals issued to vendors in July mentioned the coronavirus once, saying the contract’s “first workstream will focus on critical data during emergent situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The initial goal is to align how six agencies — the departments of public health, human services, revenue, education, corrections and workforce development — collect customer data. The vendor must then determine how to use the data “to provide insights and understanding for these agencies and the populations they serve.”

Democrats have raised concerns about the governor’s use of coronavirus relief for technology projects at a time when Iowa’s deaths, hospitalizations and infection rates are skyrocketing.

They have argued the money could be spent on other clearly allowable expenses, such as expanding testing and contact tracing, purchasing personal protective equipment, and providing aid for struggling workers and businesses.

Iowa has spent $21 million from the fund on an eviction and foreclosure prevention program, about half as much that has been set aside for the two information technology projects.

Sen. Claire Celsi, a West Des Moines Democrat, said Thursday that the governor’s staff haven’t briefed key lawmakers on the data management project and that it’s unclear whether it will be considered a qualifying expense for pandemic funds.

“If they can explain why they need it and how it’s going to benefit the pandemic, we’ll have no problem with it. But doing an end run around the regular process is problematic,” she said. “The concern is obviously if something is being done wrong we’ll have to pay it back.”

Iowa Chief Information Officer Annette Dunn called both projects “essential to the pandemic response” in a statement Thursday.

“Just as gaps in broadband coverage throughout Iowa has made life more difficult, so too has outdated technology made the pandemic response more difficult,” she said. “Having quality forward-thinking technology, software platforms, and data analytics to execute the government services Iowans rely on should not be optional.”

Federal pandemic funds may be used only to cover costs that are necessary to respond to the public health emergency and were not accounted for in a previous budget.

The governor said Wednesday that her administration believes the Workday human resources and accounting system is an allowable expense, saying it will contest a determination by Treasury Department deputy inspector general Richard Delmar that it does not qualify. Reynolds said the state would use the funds for a different purpose if the appeal is rejected.

The Workday project does not qualify because the upgrade was planned and budgeted for before the pandemic and isn’t necessary to address it, Delmar wrote. State Auditor Rob Sand reached the same conclusion.

Unlike Workday, the data management project was not funded by the governor in this year’s state budget. But it’s not clear whether the project will be deemed necessary to respond to the pandemic.