Broward County is experiencing such a time. Around the courthouse and governmental center it even has a name: "Computer Wars." Politicians, bureaucrats, and consultants are battling over $27 million of your tax money -- give or take a few million -- as county commissioners sweat in self-doubt.
"This is like trying to grab quicksand," County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman complained during one skirmish. "You can't get a firm grasp, and it changes by the second."
The Computer Wars are being fought over something called the Integrated Justice Information System (IJIS), which was supposed to bring harmony to the now-separate and outdated computer systems of the Clerk of Courts, judges, sheriff's office, state attorney, and public defender. Those computers don't communicate with each other very well; data can't be shared easily.
The proposed system was also supposed to take care of the Year 2000 problem, when old computers, programmed to read only the last two digits in a date, will interpret 2000 as 1900, wreaking havoc with all kinds of vital data.
Instead of solving these problems, IJIS has brought disharmony to county government: Computer experts argue over whether the system will work, administrators feud about inadequate reference checks and soaring costs, and county commissioners admit they may be in over their collective heads.
From her position of leadership, Commission Chairwoman Lori Nance Parrish observes, "It's very confusing."
Because this is Broward County, "Computer Wars" has a political subplot, entitled "Lockwood Unleashed! Will the Meek Clerk of Courts Finally Get His Way?"
Robert E. Lockwood is in his 22nd year as Clerk. He vows he has never ever demanded anything from county government but now insists on a specific subcontractor for his IJIS software. Top county officials -- who allegedly run the project -- call that software "critically deficient" and "unacceptable."
Each side has a battle cry. County budget director John Canada declares, "Hey, something's not right," and Bob Lockwood proclaims, "Cheapest isn't always best!"
Lockwood's office is the crucial link in IJIS. It employs 600 workers and handles more than 700,000 cases a year, including civil and criminal offenses, misdemeanors, and traffic citations. The Clerk's office is where the public goes to get copies of divorce papers or to pay tickets; the data in its computer system is used by judges, private lawyers, prosecutors, and law enforcement agencies. Indeed, IJIS is being designed to handle 1200 concurrent users for the Clerk's office functions, one of the largest such computer projects in the country.
With so much at stake, both sides battle with hired guns supplied by taxpayers.
County government's IJIS adviser is the Warner Group, California-based computer management consultants who tout a national reputation as impartial evaluators. The IJIS saga began in 1996 when the county gave Warner a $150,000 contract to develop a computer plan. As with everything else with IJIS, the Warner contract has mushroomed to at least $1.45 million.
Against Warner's national expertise the Clerk of Courts has his own high-powered computer consultant: former County Commissioner Ed Kennedy of Pompano Beach.
Until now Kennedy's special expertise was considered to be losing elections. He managed to lose his 1992 reelection campaign despite being an eight-year incumbent, an event as rare in Broward as a developer protecting wetlands.
While Kennedy is a leading defeated Republican and Lockwood is a legendary Democrat, they share an appreciation for Republican wisdom. The Party was smart enough not to run a candidate against Lockwood in 1996, when he won his sixth term, and, when questions were raised about the Clerk's governmental effectiveness, Lockwood, then age 74, replied, "I'm the same age as Bob Dole."
What does all this have to do with a $27 million computer system?
Well, before serving as county commissioner, Kennedy had somewhat of a technical background: He was a lobbyist for the telephone company, Southern Bell. After winning reelection Lockwood, perhaps preparing for the 21st Century, hired Kennedy as a telecommunications consultant: He got a $10,000 contract in February 1997 to study the Clerk's telephones.
Then came IJIS. Lockwood, sensing latent expertise, pulled Kennedy from the telephones for an even greater challenge: "Project Leader to the Clerk on the IJIS."
In May Lockwood gave Kennedy a $30,000 contract that ran through September, then was extended a year for $80,000. Kennedy got another $10,000 to continue his telephone study.
Asked how being a Southern Bell lobbyist prepared him for computer consulting, Kennedy replied, "Yeah, I was Public Affairs, but, you know, the Bell System management scenario."
Kennedy explained his duties as Lockwood's IJIS leader this way: "He brought me over to bird-dog and ramrod the scenario, more so from a management perspective than a technical perspective. We surveyed and put together a battle plan."