The State Worker

The big reason California state computer projects fail

Sacramento Bee file

Here’s Alex Castro’s first bit of sobering wisdom for state departments considering a big technology makeover: “Just because something is a good idea doesn’t mean you can do it.”

That sounds like odd advice from the CEO of Sacramento-based M Corp, which consults with public and private entities deploying IT systems. The firm, a brief stroll across L Street from the Capitol, counts many state departments as clients and, Castro says, has built a reputation for bringing projects online that deliver as promised, on time and on budget.

Among those wins: upgrading In-Home Supportive Services Program data systems, streamlining in-state child immunization records and updating a produce-audit program. Its biggest state project moved 4 billion rows of old Employment Development Department data into a new system in 2011.

In 2013, EDD would suffer the Labor Day Weekend Massacre, when a flubbed computer-system changeover managed by a different company affected payments to 150,000 Californians.

To one degree or another, similar byte bugs have hit the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the Department of Consumer Affairs and CalPERS. Upgrades for state payroll and California’s court system were so flawed that officials shut them down after spending a combined $850 million of the public’s money.

Last week, The Bee reported a project to unify payroll processing for the UC system’s 10 campuses, five hospitals and administration headquarters has burned through $50 million more than its original $170 million budget. The benefits of the program aren’t clear, and it’s two years behind its planned 2013 completion date with no end in sight.

Why do state IT debacles happen over and over? Castro says it starts with government’s antipathy for brutal self-assessment. Without it, an organization hides its weaknesses and can’t figure out processes to fix them before they jump into making multimillion-dollar technology decisions.

“So they run into brick walls: bad leadership, bad tech people, lack of vision, overestimation of (in-house) skill sets,” he said, and then think that ramming through a new IT system will force needed change “like the software will fix everything.”

As recent debacles have proved time and again, however, that just makes a bad situation worse. Employee morale takes a beating. Work gets harder instead of easier. If the tech screw-up goes public, the Legislature hauls in a few hapless department officials for a sound wrist-slapping.

Bureaucracy, whether public or private, doesn’t work like a 12-step program. “I’m Jane, and I’m a weak leader” won’t get a sympathetic “Hi, Jane,” at the next IT managers’ meeting about a gazillion-dollar IT project. Appearing competent trumps all.

“Honest self-assessment,” Castro said, “is hard.”

Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043. For more columns, go to sacbee.com/stateworker. Sign up for State Worker email alerts at www.sacbee.com/site-services/newsletters.

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