Californias government has an information technology problem, which is odd for a state whose tech industry is one of the leading drivers of its economy and whose capitol is just a couple of hours from Silicon Valley.
The government continues to struggle to keep its IT systems updated and to incorporate user-friendly features that have long been common in the private sector. Perhaps the most visible recent example is the trouble experienced by the Employment Development Department, which processes unemployment benefits.
By late July, there was a backlog of nearly 1 million claims, which Gov. Gavin Newsom said would take until the end of September to clear. By late September, however, the backlog had actually grown to almost 1.6 million, and the EDD said that it would not be cleared until late January 2021.
A strike team report found that no more than one in 1,000 callers per day are able to reach someone for help with their claimsat a call center staffed only four hours a dayand EDD Director Sharon Hilliard admitted during an August legislative hearing that the department took four to six weeks just to return peoples calls about their claims.
Both Hilliard and Newsom have described the EDDs computer systems as antiquated and noted that this has contributed significantly to delays in processing claims. Because modifying the ancient system is so difficult, Hilliard warned that it could take the state as long as 20 weeks to process any additional federal unemployment benefits.
But the EDD is hardly the only example of the states IT failures. The Financial Information System for California, known as FI$Cal, is the most expensive IT project in the states history. Currently estimated at $1.1 billion, the project to integrate the states accounting, budgeting, cash management and procurement processes has been ongoing for 15 years. When it became clear the project would miss yet another deadline, the state and its contractors decided to declare the project completed before it had actually been finished and pushed additional functions and man-hours to after the deadline.
The State Controllers Office has been struggling to update its payroll and human resources IT system even longera whopping 21 years! The effort has gone on so long that the projects name had to be changed from the 21st Century Project, which probably sounded novel back in 1999, to the MyCalPays project. Delays, cost overruns and numerous payroll errors during a test have led the project to be canceled twiceafter spending hundreds of millions of dollarsyet, State Controller Betty Yee vows to revive the troubled project.
For these reasons, the California Department of Technology and other state agencies have earned the dubious honor of being named recipients of the Independent Institutes most recent California Golden Fleece Award for state or local government agencies that swindle taxpayers or break the public trust.
There are several things the state can do to improve its IT project management and implementation. More consistent use of a cost-benefit analysis and a business justification for projects could aid in planning and help prevent costly changes down the roadlike the 102 change orders that caused a case management system upgrade for the states superior courts to balloon from $33 million to $310 million. In addition, contracts should be structured to transfer risk from taxpayers to contractorssuch as ensuring that warranties do not expire before IT systems can be tested and fixedand should be performance-based, offering financial rewards for contractors who meet certain benchmarks and deadlines and penalties for those who do not.
Many of the shortcomings are due to a lack of accountability and leadership, particularly executive responsibility for IT projects. If this cannot be corrected within state agencies due to civil service protections or other reasons, then the state should competitively outsource more oversight functions.
Finally, the state needs to better protect its data and stop selling Californians personal information, as the DMV does to the tune of more than $50 million a year.
Adopting such measures would improve services to Californians while saving taxpayer dollars. It is time the government began to emulate the success and innovation of the many private-sector technology companies that call this state home.