The State Worker

California reboots state technology management

Sacramento Bee file

California is changing how it buys and manages information technology, as the Brown administration grapples with a multibillion-dollar question: Can government – slow-moving, deliberative, risk-averse and politically driven – cleanly mesh with the ever-evolving, innovative, risk-embracing, profit-driven IT industry?

State IT leaders think so. During legislative hearings last week on yet another overbudget, underperforming state computer system, Department of Technology Director Carlos Ramos said his staff is working on a “vendor grading system.” He didn’t say how a company’s grades would affect the state’s business decisions.

Privately, the technology firms are grousing about the idea. Aside from how a bad grade might impact their business, they’re wondering about criteria and fairness. If a project fails because the state didn’t do its part to train staff, does the vendor get dinged for that? What if a company makes a mistake but then steps up and fixes the error and eats the cost? Is that an “F”? An “A”? Somewhere in the middle?

Then there’s the “stage-gate” system that the state has applied to more recent IT projects. For years, systems were pitched to CalTech with upfront cost estimates, a schedule and rationale for the overhaul. If cost, scope or schedule changed, the departments explained it to CalTech, which could delay or ax the program.

The new method divides projects into stages with decision-point “gates.” A system goes through each gate by meeting certain standards of readiness. The process is supposed to correct systems headed off-course before they get too far along and become harder to discontinue.

Gov. Jerry Brown also wants to create a crack team of IT experts within CalTech who consult on projects or even manage them daily when a department lacks the in-house expertise. Right now, departments manage their projects – sometimes to disastrous conclusions.

The nonpartisan legislative analyst says centralization is a good idea, but it carries risks. The new unit will likely cannibalize skilled IT staff from other departments. Decentralized IT managers are usually closer to the inner operations of their departments, which is an advantage when you’re developing a program to streamline business.

Of course, none of this will change technology’s central ingredient – people. They’ll still run the companies, write the programs, decide which vendors get business, whether projects live or die.

The stakes for all these reboots are enormous. Seven failed projects between 1994 and 2013 cost taxpayers nearly $1 billion. Projects in the pipeline now will cost another $4.6 billion, roughly $118 per man, woman and child in California.

So there’s pressure to change the bureaucracy. But will that change the IT bureaucrats and IT vendors who do business with them?

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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