The State Worker

Audit: California’s state technology department falling short

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California’s state technology department lacks guidelines for suspending or axing struggling computer projects, fails to set formal expectations for the agencies launching them, and struggles to keep and train key employees responsible for oversight, a new state audit says.

The report by State Auditor Elaine Howle also says the Department of Technology serves conflicting roles, because it is both watchdog and consultant for many of the government’s IT projects.

In a response letter, CalTech Director Carlos Ramos didn’t disagree with any of the recommendations Howle offered, but he noted that many of the fixes she proposed are already underway.

California has long-standing troubles with technology. From 1994 to 2013, the state government spent $985 million on seven computer projects that were either terminated or suspended. In one case, the state paid $1 billion in federal penalties because it took eight years to install an automated child-support enforcement system.

The audit states that “because CalTech does not always hold projects accountable,” it has failed to use the administrative carrots and sticks at its disposal to keep programs on track.

In one high-profile example, the Department of Consumer Affairs’ BreEZe program lacked a schedule for an early phase of the project, according to the audit. Technology officials could have stopped funding for BreEZe, but instead overlooked the lapse and allowed the project to keep rolling. Intended to upgrade California’s vast licensing and regulation systems, BreEZe is on course to cost three times its $27 million budget, hasn’t delivered the promised services and is under intense scrutiny by the Legislature.

CalTech has legal authority over projects but doesn’t know how to use it, according to the audit, because it has no formal guidance for flexing its muscle. Instead, it relies on “professional judgment at key decision points” and “has let projects with major issues continue to consume state resources while they flounder.”

In his response letter, Ramos said his department has eight criteria for suspending or terminating a project, such as when a vendor can’t deliver contracted services or evidence of purchasing fraud. He committed to documenting and disseminating the criteria by year’s end.

The department also is hamstrung by staffing issues, the audit says, “including frequent turnover, an inadequate state job classification, a potential shortage of resources, and inconsistent training.” Last year, about one-sixth of its 35 oversight and consulting positions were empty at any given time, a 17 percent vacancy rate.

Howle noted, though, that CalTech is modifying its job classification for technology-oversight staff, developing a new training program for them, and considering whether to ask for more staff.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated from an earlier version to correct that the auditor said the state has spent $985 million, not billion, on seven computer projects that failed or were suspended between 1994 and 2013.

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

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