An embarrassing glitch in reporting COVID-19 infection data is the latest in a long string of state information technology failures.
While marking time as lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom wrote a book about how technology could transform government.
“I want to make government as smart as Google,” Newsom told an interviewer after the book, “Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square and Reinvent Government,” was published in 2013.
While technology “is flattening major institutions” and transforming how Americans shop, communicate, research and keep abreast of current events, Newsom said “Government as an institution is not prepared for it” and is struggling even to keep decades-old systems functioning.
He specifically cited the state Department of Motor Vehicles as a prime example of how California, the technology capital of the world, failed to implement that technology to make government more accessible, responsive and efficient.
“We’re sitting there with systems that can collapse at any moment,” he said. “We are on the cutting edge of the 1970s.”
All true, and the state’s failures to improve information technology have slammed home with a vengeance during the early months of Newsom’s governorship.
First, as he warned, the Department of Motor Vehicles virtually collapsed. Then, as he shut down much of the state’s economy to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, the Employment Development Department’s own antiquated technology rendered it incapable of handling a flood of claims for unemployment insurance benefits.
Another technology meltdown occurred this month in the Department of Public Health, failing to accurately track COVID-19 infections and embarrassing Newsom when he heralded — falsely, as it turned out — a 21% drop in daily cases.
Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s health and human services secretary, insisted that neither he nor Newsom knew about the backlogged test data until after Newsom’s Aug. 3 telecast in which he cited the infection decline. However, news outlets soon reported that as much as three days earlier, the Department of Public Health had warned local health officials of the data problems.
The backlog of test results was, Ghaly said, caused by technical changes made after a server crashed, combined with the state’s failure to renew a certificate required to receive data from Quest Diagnostics, a commercial testing lab. California did not receive Quest data from July 31 to Aug. 4, leading to the erroneous belief that COVID-19 cases had declined.
“We are doing a complete look into how that communication could have been better and where it went wrong. …” Ghaly said. “The governor has directed a full investigation of what happened, and we will hold people accountable.”
Late Sunday, the director of the department, Dr. Sonia Angell resigned and while no reason for her departure was given, it gave the appearance that she was walking the plank for an embarrassing failure to communicate.
On Monday, Newsom danced around reporters’ questions about Angell’s resignation, but left the impression that she was ousted. “At the end of the day the buck stops with me,” he said. “We’re moving on.”
Newsom also acknowledged, without prompting, that the COVID-19 data failure is part of the larger crisis the state faces not only in functioning with outdated technology, but its chronic inability to bring updated systems on line.
There’s a long list of failed or partially functional new systems that have cost taxpayers billions of dollars, the most notorious being a statewide system for tracking financial data called FI$CAL.
“It just has not been an area of deep focus,” Newsom said Monday, adding that successful updates “require a stubborn, long-term effort” and declaring that despite lapses in previous administrations, “we are now accountable.”
Accountabilty is great. Improvement would be even greater.