What can be learned from the Commonwealth’s new 9-1-1 system?

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The State 9-1-1 Department recently finished building an enhanced 9-1-1 system that migrates state 9-1-1 call centers to the new Next Generation system, which features many improvements. For instance, the Next Generation 9-1-1 system lets people send more information to 9-1-1 operators, including GPS location data. This is a great leap forward for public safety in Massachusetts.


The Department of Telecommunications and Cable charges every phone line in Massachusetts a fee to support Massachusetts’ 911 system. The State 9-1-1 Department asked for the fee to be increased to pay for this project. For the first year the project was underway the DTC charged every phone line $1.25 per month; since July 2016 the monthly fee has been $1.00. Prior to the Next Generation 9-1-1 project, the fee was 75 cents per month. The State 9-1-1 Department told the DTC in its petition to raise the fee that it needs the fee increase “to support the maintenance of two systems for a period of time during the transition from the current enhanced 911 systems to the new Next Generation 911 system.” The Department implied that the increase would remain in effect only until the project was completed.


Like many state technology projects, this one was completed behind schedule. Now that the new 9-1-1 system has been rolled out, it’s time to look back on the process and learn from it.


In the original contract, the State 9-1-1 Department and the contractor, General Dynamics IT, agreed that the project would implement in August of 2015 and be complete by July 2016. General Dynamics IT was awarded the contract in part due to its claims that it could “deliver NG9-1-1 to the Commonwealth two months ahead of the deadline.” However, it took until December 2017 for the project to be finished; a year and a half behind schedule.


We all know that many government projects go over budget. Whether it’s the Big Dig or the road work down the street, overruns are common. According to Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, people are susceptible to the planning fallacy. This account of delays says that because people assume the projects they are working on will run into few delays or errors, they end up being overly optimistic when asked how long a project will take.


The disconnect between our ability to accurately estimate a project’s timeline when we aren’t working on it and to accurately estimate the timeline when we are leads to inaccurate estimates being conveyed to the public.


Other states have built Next Generation 9-1-1 systems. Maine took six and a half years to finish theirs. Given that Massachusetts has fewer remote areas to worry about and worked with a project manager that has implemented more Next Generation 9-1-1 systems, perhaps it was reasonable to estimate that the project could be completed in three years less than Maine’s final timeline. That would have meant a time estimate of three and a half years rather than the one year Massachusetts’ had originally estimated.


There could be other reasons for the delay, yet the State 9-1-1 Department designed the contract to attempt to avoid these problems. The contract included provisions that allowed the Commonwealth to pay General Dynamics less if project milestones were completed late. These clawback provisions helped to both protect taxpayer money by recouping losses due to delays and incentivize General Dynamics to deliver on time.


Even with these provisions, delays still occurred. If government produces more realistic timelines from the outset, the public would have access to more information when it really matters – before a project gets approved. What’s the worst that could happen?  Maybe people will be pleasantly surprised when the next is completed ahead of schedule.