System Failure

In 1996, the Maricopa County Environmental Services Division launched a bold, new program to computerize its health inspection process. The aim was to provide on-the-spot permits and evaluations to facilities. The division spent $384,745 on 60 handheld computers for use in the field.

But then most of the computers sat in their boxes for a year. By the time the cartons were opened, the ink cartridges in the printers had dried out, the warranties had expired and the printers themselves were obsolete.

It was an inauspicious beginning for a program that has been dogged by problems since its inception. Since October, when the computers were finally used on a daily basis, the handheld-computer program has faced numerous technical problems and criticism from inspectors, with few actual results, county records show.

County officials defend the program. They say it's still getting off the ground, and will prove its worth down the line. But now, the program's supervisor has left the county, no replacement has been hired, and no testing has been done to find out if the computers save time and money as promised.

The handheld-computer program was started by David Ludwig, head of Maricopa County's environmental health section. The computers were seen as an alternative to hiring more staff to keep up with the county's rapid growth. More and more inspectors are needed, according to the county, to examine all the new restaurants and facilities springing up in the area. Ludwig estimated that it would cost more than $1 million to carry out inspections without computerizing the system--mostly to hire more personnel--compared to about $500,000 for the handheld-computer program.

The implementation of the system was anything but smooth. The county ordered the computers in January 1996; they were delivered in March. A pilot program where some staff members began to use the computers didn't actually begin until the summer of 1997.

According to Courtney James, spokeswoman for the Environmental Services Division, the yearlong delay was caused because the custom software required for field inspections hadn't been written. Also, the server that would receive information from the handheld computers wasn't working. In the meantime, some staff members used the handhelds as desktop computers. But most of the units remained in their packages.

The long lag time created its own problems. Many of the printers, which were supposed to be able to print out copies of inspections immediately, came out of the box broken or with the ink cartridges dried out. The warranties on those printers had already expired, so replacement was difficult.

The move to computerize was further complicated when 11 of the handhelds and printers were stolen in September from the Environmental Services office.

The pilot program was also uncovering snags in the software for the computers. While staff was entering descriptions of health violations into the unit, the computer would often freeze up and have to be rebooted. A computer glitch attributed inspections to the wrong district offices.

The new system also lost inspections. In August, several inspections were accidentally deleted from the database. One day, 17 inspections were lost in a single error, according to an e-mail sent by Ludwig to employees.

Descriptions of health violations had to be drastically shortened to fit into the computer's tiny screen. Some computers displayed "grossly inaccurate" information because of confusion with health-violation codes, according to an e-mail from Tom Dominick, the program supervisor who has since left.

Nevertheless, all inspection staff members were expected to use the handhelds for all inspections by October 15, 1997.

Reaction from the staff has been mixed at best. While some inspectors reported the new system was "working flawlessly," as one put it in an e-mail to Ludwig, others were less than delighted.

Inspectors complained that the units were heavy and unwieldy, and one staffer suffered an on-the-job injury lugging the handheld. While the handheld unit itself only weighs three pounds, the other equipment, including the printer, weighs about 25 pounds and can require a luggage cart to transport.

Many staffers also lacked basic computer training, according to an e-mail from one employee.

"After working with a few staff members on handheld training, I have noticed that some people have no concept of how computers work," the employee wrote. "They become very afraid of the most basic trouble-shooting."

Inspectors were also frustrated by the continuing glitches. Batteries would die after as little as two hours. Computers would freeze up for as long as 20 minutes because of a clash between the power management software and other programs. By the end of January, the environmental health section showed more than 70 hours of computer time had been used by county programmers to fix 30 errors. The entire handheld program required 567 hours to fix 74 problems.

The employees also complained that Ludwig responded to criticism of the handhelds by "screaming and yelling."

County officials say that the program is now over the rough spots. "We have a chance to succeed," department head Al Brown said at a meeting when questioned about the handhelds by employees.

But glitches still exist in the system. As of February 4, 108 tasks remained to get the environmental health software fully up to speed, requiring about a thousand hours of computer-programmer time, according to the county's task list.

Also, Dominick, the division employee who dealt with most of the problems in the system and wrote the handhelds' operating manuals, left the county in January. No replacement has been hired yet.

The county hasn't done any evaluation of how well the computers work. Productivity did decline initially, according to memos from county staff, and was expected to rebound after employees learned the new system.

But no studies have been done to determine if this is true. In an e-mail, one county employee estimates that the handhelds have only saved two minutes per inspection--"not a very significant reduction," he wrote. But management has since seized on that two-minute estimate--which was intended as a criticism--and says it could mean a savings of up to $31,000 a year in inspection time.

Despite the mixed results so far, the county says the program is worth the cost and effort.

"You have to take into account that we're the third-fastest-growing county in the country," James says. "You don't want to spend more money just hiring more staff. You want to do more technologically oriented, smarter kinds of things that make better use of that time and money."

Contact Chris Farnsworth at his online address: [email protected]