One of the great—and quite irksome—anomalies of California is that while its economy is largely driven by Silicon Valley’s digital innovation, its state government in Sacramento, just 100 miles northeast, has abysmally failed to use that technology effectively.
It literally would take every bit of this space to even briefly list the many information technology (IT) disasters that have occurred—projects that promised more bang for the taxpayers’ buck but not only vastly exceeded their cost estimates but also failed to work as promised and, in some cases, had to be abandoned altogether, wasting billions of dollars.
The problem children have ranged from a bollixed-up “case management” system for the courts to a project called “FI$Cal,” aimed at centralizing and managing state finances.
Successive governors and the Legislature, which appropriated the funds on those promises of efficiency, have not been as diligent as they should have been in demanding better results.
Their attitude has been, as Gov. Jerry Brown once said of a highly troubled public-works project, “Shit happens.”
Finally, however, the Legislature grew tired of the list of failures and two years ago created something called the “Statewide Project Management Office” that was supposed to police state agency efforts to design, build and use IT and make them fulfill their grandiose promises.
It was, in effect, supposed to make the Department of Technology, itself an earlier stab at cleaning up the state’s IT mess, do its job.
Last Thursday, the Legislature’s budget analyst, Mac Taylor, issued a report on how well the new agency has been working, and it’s not looking good.
In essence, Taylor’s staff found, the PMO, as it’s called, selected low-hanging fruit—the projects“likely to progress smoothly”—to test its potential. While they seemed to work, the Brown administration has made a couple of changes in the oversight process that could severely limit expansion of the PMO to the larger, more complex IT projects that need help the most.
First, Taylor reported, the state Department of Technology basically folded the PMO into its management structure, rather than have it be an independent watchdog, creating what he called “a potential conflict of interest.”
Secondly, a policy change “significantly reduces the number and complexity of IT projects eligible for PMO services.” That means the big projects would likely escape PMO purview, which would be, of course, a recipe for continued IT failure.
It appears that the parochial interests of bureaucracies in protecting their turf, not sharing information and not exposing themselves to outside scrutiny, has prevailed, at least so far.
This is not a new syndrome, of course. It’s what public agencies routinely do. But one of the Legislature’s functions, albeit one lacking political sex appeal, is to counter that tendency by creating and maintaining watchdogs such as Taylor’s office, such as the state auditor (which has also been highly critical of IT calamities) and the Project Management Office.
“We recommend that the Legislature express intent in statute that it expects the PMO to operate independently and serve in the best interests of the projects,” Taylor concluded. “This would ease sponsoring departments’ concerns of inappropriate and unnecessary information sharing between the PMO and [Department of Technology] oversight and cultivate an open pathway of communication between the PMO and sponsoring departments.”
We’ll see if, as Taylor recommends, the Legislature gets involved again.