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Walters: California’s Technology Woes Deepen
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By Dan Walters, CalMatters Commentary
Published 3 years ago on
January 13, 2021

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While doing his stretch in solitary confinement as lieutenant governor of California, Gavin Newsom wrote a book entitled “Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government.”

In the book, published in 2013, Newsom sang the praises of digital technology and its potential for making government and its services more transparent, more efficient and more responsive.

Dan Walters

Opinion

A half-decade later, Newsom succeeded Jerry Brown in the governorship and thus management of a state government that had been struggling, with little success, to implement the technological nirvana he envisioned.

Since then, it’s become even more evident that despite being the cradle of the digital revolution that has utterly transformed how humankind lives and works, California’s government just can’t make technology work well. In fact, its tech failures have gone the other way, making services even less reliable.

We’ve seen two spectacular examples in the first two years of Newsom’s governorship, meltdowns at the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Employment Development Department. The DMV fiasco was annoying, but the one at EDD has serious human consequences, delaying or denying cash benefits to those suddenly thrown out of work by COVID-19 shutdowns while allowing billions of dollars to be squandered on fraudulent claims.

The FI$Cal Project Began 15 Years Go

Just this month, there was another. Software meant to hasten the distribution and application of vaccinations against COVID-19 stumbled, contributing to California’s subpar rollout of lifesaving inoculations against the dread disease and thus possibly adding to the pandemic’s already horrendous death roll.

Asked about the vaccination tech failures as he rolled out his new state budget last week, Newsom responded, rather lamely, “We have a lot of work to do in bringing California into the digital age.”

No kidding.

A day before Newsom’s budget announcement, the state auditor’s office gave California’s sorry efforts to implement technology another black mark on its most ambitious project, Financial Information System for California (FI$Cal), meant to become a centralized repository of financial data.

The FI$Cal project began 15 years go and Auditor Elaine Howle has been a frequent critic of its years of delay in implementation, ever-increasing costs and ever-changing parameters.

In her latest report, Howle says those issues are still not resolved and not having a workable financial reporting system in place threatens some adverse consequences.

Faced With a Sorry Record on Tech Implementation, Newsom Created an Office of Digital Innovation

“State agencies using FI$Cal still struggle to complete required financial reports on time,” she told Newsom and legislative leaders. “Consequently, the state released its annual audited financial statements months late for the second year in a row. A late release of critical financial information increases the risk to the state of a lower credit rating, which could result in increased costs to taxpayers.”

Howle is especially critical of what she describes as deceptive information on what adopting FI$Cal will actually cost in relationship to what it will presumably accomplish when it is completed. As costs climb — the most recent estimate is $1 billion — the tasks to be performed have shrunken in apparent hopes that a half-baked system can be declared finished.

Faced with a sorry record on tech implementation, Newsom created an Office of Digital Innovation and charged it with making his lofty visions of “digital transformation and results-oriented government” a reality.

Newsom’s new budget refers obliquely to the DMV and EDD disasters by saying, “The events of 2020 highlighted the urgent need to modernize government services in an online environment.” He proposes to spend even more money on technology in the hope that it will ultimately pay off in better services at less cost.

At the moment, however, he’s trying to make water run uphill.

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 Commentary.

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