For years – many years – journalists and government watchdogs have cataloged an almost unbroken, extremely expensive string of failed attempts to bring information technology into state government operations.
Dozens of IT projects have either failed completely or functioned undependably, costing taxpayers countless millions of dollars.
The current poster child for faulty IT is “The Financial Information System for California” or FI$CAL, with a slogan of “One State. One System” – proving again that state officials are more adept at conjuring up catchy names for projects than making them work.
Just last month, the Legislature’s budget analyst said that after undergoing numerous revisions, costs for FI$CAL had ballooned to nearly a billion dollars – more than six times its original estimate when it was launched in 2005 – and that both more revisions and more costs are anticipated.
Newsom has vowed to fix not only FI$CAL but all of the other instances of poor IT implementation.
Newsom Created the Office of Digital Innovation
As CALmatters writer Elizabeth Castillo wrote in a recent article about the situation, “Newsom was outspoken about technology problems in California’s bureaucracy even before he was elected. He called for pushing democracy into the digital age with a book he co-authored in 2013: ‘Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government.’ In an interview with Google, Newsom said, ‘California is on the leading and cutting edge of 1973’.”
Newsom’s first budget includes more than $40 million to create a new agency called the Office of Digital Innovation, exempt from many of the usual governmental procedures.
Newsom spokesman Brian Ferguson told Castillo in a written statement: “The goal of this new office is to tap into and grow the creativity, innovation, and transparency that already exists elsewhere in our state to improve the way the executive branch approaches the delivery of technology and services to the public.”
Interestingly, the new agency would not supplant the Office of Technology Services, created during the Arnold Schwarzenegger administration with the same goal.
While it’s easy to list the state’s technology debacles, what’s missing is some sense of why they occur.
I posed the “why” question to one of the principal figures in efforts to end the litany of failures during the Schwarzenegger administration, promising anonymity.
New Oversight Agency Might Be Another Failure
“The No. 1 reason IT projects fail is because there is usually no executive sponsorship of the project,” I was told. “So that leadership role is filled by lower-level program managers and the IT folks.”
The informant went on to describe frustrations in “getting seven, major multi-hundred million dollar projects back on track, or terminating them.”
In one case, the source described an experience with a top executive regarding a $300 million system for managing child support. “I laid it out that this project is failing and must get her full attention or it is unrecoverable. Her response: I have a dozen issues on my desk more important than this. I responded, if it ain’t important to you, it’s not to me. I’m terminating it.”
My source’s conclusion is that civil servants who are in charge of failing IT projects don’t fear that their own careers will be damaged. “As I told Gov. Newsom when we bumped into each other on a flight from DC to (Sacramento), when are you going to fire somebody for all these failures, and put an executive in charge responsible for performance?”
Creating a new oversight agency may be just another failure unless Newsom is willing to take that advice.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.