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Jon Ortiz

The State Worker: Little incentive to fix California state IT

Published: Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:13 pm

Sometimes California's lousy state government technology has its … advantages.

Sure, a trail of fractured systems, dense databases, overpriced programs and outright failures is paved with billions of dollars running back three decades. It's embarrassing that the cradle of the technology revolution can't get its binary house in order.

"There's no incentive for success," says John Thomas Flynn, California's first chief information officer under Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.

The path of failure most recently led to the state's MyCalPays payroll system upgrade, a quarter-billion-dollar project that Controller John Chiang dumped this month. Test runs by global tech firm SAP, the software contractor, showed the system couldn't reliably do the basics like add, subtract or send child support payments to the right place.

Oops.

Despite a long history of state tech debacles, politicians have long invoked software and hardware as tonic for government ills.

GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, a creature of the Silicon Valley, said in 2010 that she would whack 40,000 state jobs if elected. Better technology, she promised, would make the flabby bureaucracy leaner and more efficient.

Former Chief Justice Ron George championed a vast computer system to link the state's 58 county courts. The project never worked, despite $500 million poured into it. George retired before his successor axed it.

Even Democrat Chiang, a realist who doesn't shy away from delivering bad news, thought SAP would have the payroll system project ready to roll by 2012.

A few common threads run through many state tech failures.

Firms overpromise and underdeliver. Changes cost extra. State auditors found that one court system contractor had more than 100 change orders that pushed its bill from $33 million to more than $300 million.

Unions like "doing things the old-fashioned way," Flynn says, because change means efficiency and efficiency costs union jobs.

Better government technology equals more government transparency. That sounds great as a campaign slogan, but if it exposes waste in your pet program or threatens the contracting cash flowing to your business-interest contributors, maybe it's not worth it.

Sure, upgrading California's government IT is a massive undertaking. We're talking about 350,000 or so workers in a state that's bigger than Iraq serving 38 million residents.

Think about the last time you bought a computer or upgraded your cellphone software and an old program or app didn't work right. Now multiply your frustration by a zillion.

That's state government technology.

Flynn still holds out hope for a California 2.0. But first government culture has to change. It has to hold vendors more accountable, admit its errors more quickly and encourage innovation. Until then, Flynn says the state IT projects are "just painting over rust."

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About The State Worker

Jon Ortiz The Author

Jon Ortiz launched The State Worker blog and a companion column in 2008 to cover state government from the perspective of California government employees. Every day he filters the news through a single question: "What does this mean for state workers?" Join Ortiz for updates and debate on state pay, benefits, pensions, contracts and jobs. Contact him at (916) 321-1043 and at jortiz@sacbee.com.

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Note: The State Worker blog switched blog platforms in October 2013. All posts after the switch are found here. Older posts are available using the list below.


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