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The State Worker: Lessons from Ohio’s state tech project

Published: Thursday, Sep. 26, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Friday, Sep. 27, 2013 - 11:43 am

Ask John Conomy the key ingredient for a successful government technology project and he’ll give you one word: “Fear.”

Conomy is the top tech officer for the Ohio Department of Public Safety. Last year his agency published a review of its Exodus Project, which updated a 40-year-old computer system that handles Ohio drivers’ licensing, vehicle registrations and everything that flows from managing all that data. Law enforcement, courts, insurance companies and 1,500 Bureau of Motor Vehicle employees relied on the faithful-but-creaking system. Updating it took five years and about $15 million. It was on time and on budget.

Sure, it’s small potatoes compared with California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, which has 8,200 employees, give or take. And sure, California’s size makes state technology projects harder to pull off.

Look no further than today’s Sacramento Bee for news that the Brown administration is shoveling out money for overdue unemployment payments before checking claimants’ eligibility. Why? A gigantic claim backlog created after a computer system update over (ironically) Labor Day weekend.

Still, government IT success stories are rare, so The State Worker called Conomy for Exodus insights. Among them:

Fear failure. Ohio officials in 2007 knew within five years they faced spending up to $13.5 million to buy processing power – much like buying gas to run a car – and new hardware. Programmers were hard to find. So the state swallowed hard and said it wouldn’t keep pouring big bucks into the antiquated technology. Period. “We had to make the project work,” Conomy said. Without that hard deadline the project might still be flailing.

Fear waste. Government projects slip past deadlines and go over budget, Conomy said, when there’s a sense that endless public dollars can fix any costly mistakes. Ohio’s state budget was squeezed, however, and “I really didn’t want to ask for more money,” he said. The Exodus Project needed a little extra cash to bridge a few months between the legacy contracts expiring and the launch of the new system, but otherwise it stayed on track.

Own it. The 30-member Exodus team mostly comprised state employees with just a few contracted consultants. Outsourcing the whole thing would have freed up staff for daily work, but it would have doubled the project’s total cost, Conomy said. Keeping the work in-house also gave the state more control and a greater sense of responsibility. “At the end of the day, it’s Public Safety’s baby,” he said. “It’s our name on the sign over the door, our people on the desk.”

Find wins. At one point, the Exodus team slipped into despair, stymied by a series of crises, crushing workloads and daunting deadlines. Then they rethought their approach, broke big projects down into smaller ones and started marking progress. Everything changed. “Instead of trying to do some giant effort with a big bang at the end,” Conomy said, “we went to a series of small bangs,”

Right now, it looks like California’s state technology needs more little wins – and maybe a little more fear?


Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916)321-1043.

Read more articles by Jon Ortiz



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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