My turn: Gavin Newsom should embrace a digital transformation of state government

By Dean Florez, Special to CALmatters

As the home of innovation, California bears the responsibility to ensure that the benefits of technology will be extended beyond the portfolios of the privileged few to all the residents of our great state.

That will be among Gavin Newsom’s most pressing challenges.

California must transform the compact between government and the state’s residents by radically rethinking how government services are provided.

Technology allows many of us to work from home. We can order any product within minutes, and we have endless video streams to entertain us for the rest of our natural lives.

Airlines are experimenting with using biometric identifiers instead of passports or drivers’ licenses to confirm travelers’ identities.

Yet in California, if we want to get a drivers’ license or register to vote, it’s like we are living in 1954.

Here’s the reality: There is no issue at the California DMV that could not be easily solved by a new approach. The problem is that we continually try to build modern software that interfaces with systems designed 30 or 40 years ago.

Modern, intelligent, mobile, cloud-based software does not easily coexist with legacy, overnight, simple, terminal-oriented, mainframe systems.

Our new governor needs to launch a major initiative to transform how government services are delivered.

This should begin with the DMV and our voting systems, and ultimately expand to include determining eligibility for Medi-Cal, clearing records as part of criminal justice reform, modernization of legacy child welfare systems. In short, every aspect of how state government interacts with Californians could be transformed.

If done right, these systems could significantly improve the services the state offers to the public, to increase utilization and decrease costs to taxpayers.

There are two parts to governance: building the right policies to serve the public and then building a government engine to execute the policies effectively.

Too often we get the first part right and miss on the execution. Under Gavin Newsom’s   leadership, California needs to do three things to get the execution right:

  • Develop the capabilities to build new systems in collaboration with commercial software development vendors. To be effective at managing these collaborative efforts the state must modernize its information technology workforce. IT workers must do some of the work themselves. You cannot manage work when you do not have a deep understanding of the effort required. State workers are smart and dedicated public servants. But they have not been given the opportunity to participate as peers in software application development.
  • Government must align procurement practices with the future direction needed to ensure success. The times of government dusting off the 10-year-old request for proposals and reissuing with minor tweaks can’t continue. The ability to transform is directly linked to the method of purchase. This will take a close and meaningful partnership between the public and private sectors.
  • The state must embrace the fact that technological change is constant. We have to build cost-effective systems that run on secure, modern computing infrastructure. Today, this means cloud-computing which can reduce costs by 10 times or more.

These challenges don’t just touch one aspect of government. Technology is the new utility running throughout state government.

Up to this point, IT systems have been the province of system administrators.  Now, a digital transformation must be a focus of incoming Gov. Newsom. The choice is simple. California can continue its role as a lighthouse state or let others pass us by.


Dean Florez represented Shafter in the Assembly and state Senate from 1998-2010, and is a member of the California Air Resources Board, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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