California Gov. Gavin Newsom during a meeting at the Divina Providencia Hospital in San Salvador, El Salvador. AP Photo/Salvador Melendez
California Gov. Gavin Newsom during a meeting at the Divina Providencia Hospital in San Salvador, El Salvador. AP Photo/Salvador Melendez

In summary

Despite California’s status as a technological innovator, its state government has seen failure after failure in implementing information technology. Gov. Gavin Newsom is promising to fix this chronic problem.

California is the global capital of technological innovation, but state officials are much more adept at devising catchy names for their big “information technology” projects than actually implementing them.

Take, for instance, something called “BrEZee,” which is supposed to streamline how the state Department of Consumer Affairs licenses countless thousands of professional workers.

Four years ago, the state auditor’s office concluded “that the BreEZe project has been plagued with performance problems, significant delays, and escalating costs, which based on a January 2015 estimate were $96 million – more than triple the original cost estimate –for implementation of a system at only half of the regulatory entities originally planned for BreEZe.”

Today, the system is still not fully operational and millions of more dollars are being sought to fix its operational problems.

The biggest current headache, however, is the Financial Information System for California, dubbed FI$CAL, which has the motto of “one state, one system,” and was launched 12 years ago to be a multi-agency tool for managing money.

It’s swallowed nearly a billion dollars but is so unreliable, the state auditor found, that some state agencies won’t use it to produce accurate reports that the federal government requires for granting funds.

After the auditor’s office released its latest tale of FI$CAL woe this year, state Controller Betty Yee told the Legislature that she is “gravely concerned” that its unreliability could undermine the state’s credit rating.

“We need to pause and direct resources to making FI$CAL work as it was intended to work,” she wrote. “Continuing to push ahead by adding features that do not work or bringing more departments into the troubled system will cost taxpayers exponentially more in the long run.”

So it has gone, system after system failing to meet timetables for implementation, running up huge cost overruns and not working reliably. And yet, the state also cannot continue to use systems that are so old they can’t be serviced and often break down. One reason the Department of Motor Vehicles has become a managerial morass is that its ancient computer system frequently crashes for hours while customers wait in line.

Then-Gov. Jerry Brown created a “task force” to study IT problems early in his second governorship. It reported that it “is optimistic that with the current leadership and institutional commitment to reform, California’s current and future IT projects can and will be more successful.”

Brown also created a Department of Technology that was to oversee IT projects, rather than have individual departments go it alone. It wrote a “Vision 2020” strategic plan for implementing IT but the problems have persisted.

Brown’s successor, Gavin Newsom, has pledged to shake things up and proposes in his first budget $36 million to create an “Office of Digital Innovation” that he says will take a more creative approach. “If you like the status quo, you’re not going to like these reforms,” Newsom said.

Meanwhile, a Democratic assemblyman from Marin County, Marc Levine, wants to add still another layer of oversight. His Assembly Bill 1055 would require any big IT project, one costing over $100 million, to have an independent oversight committee.

“While oversight of technology projects can be as boring as watching paint dry, California needs much more than a fresh coat of paint on our management of these projects,” Levine said.

True enough, but we’ve heard promises of fresh starts on IT implementation before, and they’ve all fallen short of actually fixing the problem.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...