The State Worker

After 5 years, a state civil rights agency is escaping its Houdini headache

Department of Fair Employment and Housing Director Kevin Kish
Department of Fair Employment and Housing Director Kevin Kish Courtesty photo, Department of Fair Employment and Housing

In California state government’s gallery of failed technology projects, a tiny program called Houdini cost a fraction of some long-running endeavors that aren’t yet delivering on their promises.

But it’s been a five-year headache for employees investigating discrimination complaints at the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

They duplicate some of their work in a separate case management program. They brace for frequent system crashes. And they haven’t been able to whittle down a 1,200-case backlog, leaving people waiting for months before they can talk with someone about a discrimination claim.

Houdini “has been riddled with problems,” one of the employees wrote to Senate investigators in 2013. “The system simply does not support the level of service previously provided by DFEH.”

The Department of Fair Employment and Housing, a small civil rights agency that assesses 24,000 discrimination complaints every year, is about to get a $2.4 million do-over on a 2012 effort that swapped its well-regarded paper-based filing system with a digital one mostly employed by law firms.

“This is a game changer,” department Director Kevin Kish enthused in an April 2016 all-staff message when Gov. Jerry Brown set aside money for the new system.

This time, department leaders say, they’re tailoring the program for their needs rather than buying an off-the-shelf product used mainly by a different industry.

They’re also going through a new statewide technology procurement process developed in 2014 to head off some of the errors that have bedeviled major tech buys. The Department of Fair Employment and Housing’s next case management system will be the first product to emerge from that revamped method.

The main difference, executives say, is that experts from the Department of Technology have been on the ground at the Department of Fair Employment and Housing since the state and Houdini vendor LogicBit decided to part ways.

“We are there to literally sit next to them as they work through what is possible for a project. We are there with the department frorm the get-go,” said Department of Technology director Amy Tong.

Kish joined the department in early 2015, after the resignation of the director who chose Houdini for its technology modernization.

What to do with Houdini was an obvious question.

In 2012, the state spent $640,000 to buy Houdini and then paid another $98,500 to modify it. Then-director Phyllis Cheng adopted the program to make the department more efficient, inviting people to file claims online and then cross-training employees to both assess whether the complaints had merit and investigate them.

“With Houdini, they now have both intake and investigative duties, requiring them not only to learn new duties and procedures but also to develop techniques to balance their front-end and back-end processing responsibilities,” she wrote to a federal agency in October 2012 explaining changes at her department.

The Sacramento Bee first wrote about troubles with Houdini in November 2013, noting that one of the department’s federal partners found a precipitous drop in the department’s ability to investigate claims of housing discrimination in a timely way.

A month later, the Senate Rules Committee published a 99-page report urging reforms at the department. It documented unmanageable caseloads, underfunding and shortsighted attempts to quicken investigations by nixing face-to-face interviews.

It also included multiple employees citing Houdini as an obstacle to progress.

The department “is not meeting its mission and obligation to properly investigate complaints of discrimination, harassment and retaliation filed by the people of California,” a group of investigators from the Department of Fair Employment and Housing wrote in an August 2013 memo that was obtained by Senate investigators.

Kish would not say why the department and LogicBit agreed to part ways, but that decision came within months of his arrival. LogicBit did not respond to requests for comment and Kish would not comment on the program’s merits.

Over the past two years, employee complaints about Houdini have persisted. Documents obtained by The Bee show that the system shuts down often, at least once a week in November.

Employees document some case information in separate Mirosoft Excel worksheets because it doesn’t naturally fit into Houdini.

Other messages obtained by The Bee show the department was behind on its goals to process both housing and employment discrimination claims, prompting appeals for overtime and a warning that it risked losing some of the federal funds it receives.

A new case management system won’t resolve the backlog, but it’s intended to help, Kish said.

The department last year also gained permission to beef up its staff with 25 additional investigators. They might make greater headway in slimming the 90 days it takes for investigators to address basic discrimination claims.

“That 90-day wait is important,” Kish said. “If we didn’t get to your claim, it could mean that you were evicted illegally.”

Houdini will be replaced by a Salesforce program that Kish said should be easier for the state to mold for the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

The new system is already in use by other government agencies, giving Fair Employment and Housing some assurance that it will work as intended.

“It was important to me that other people doing this work are using this system,” Kish said.

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton. Sign up for state worker news alerts at sacbee.com/newsletters.

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