Author’s Note: For the next several weeks leading up to my retirement following NASCIO’s 2024 Midyear Conference outside Washington, D.C., in May, I will be reviewing a new book I was pleased to contribute to, and that hopefully will be of interest and value to colleagues and friends in government IT at all levels.

The book, Technology vs. Government: The Irresistible Force Meets the Immovable Object, was written and edited by Lloyd Levine, and co-published with contributions from eight other chapter authors including myself. Levine is a former member of the California State Legislature, and Senior Policy Fellow at the University of California. Levine’s tome is being called both a solid guidepost and a stark warning for government policy and administrative leaders at all levels of the public sector – especially for those leaders and their private sector IT vendor partners who have faced the wrath of public reprobation for their too-frequent shortcomings.

In chapter one we illustrate the size and scope of these shortcomings:

“Awarding a $250 million information technology (IT) project to a near bankrupt vendor under SEC investigation; project vendor contracts with over 100 amendments; gross underestimates of the project scope and size; average cost increase of nearly 90% for every major project; contracts with IT vendors without strict performance or liability standards; a new payroll system rollout producing thousands of erroneous paychecks with at least 100 different types of errors.”

These all too often seem to comprise the dark landscape that has befallen major state of California IT initiatives. As we discuss in Chapter 1 – Stumbling Blocks: The Structure and Imperatives of Government Agencies Lead to Technology Failures – “failures cross administrations and party lines and are just a few examples of some of the major and expensive technology implementation problems that have beset California’s government over the last few decades.”

It has been said by governors (including the current one), the media, and the public that it is ironic that California – home of Silicon Valley and many of the country’s and the world’s foremost technology institutions in the private sector and academia – “can’t do IT.” But publicly complaining about something is different from digging into the problem to understand the root cause and to mandate change.

In Chapter 1, as I have written, and many observers in California would agree, the problematic state of California’s IT developments really came to the surface in 1994. At that time problems with the California Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) Department’s $50 million modernization failure piqued the attention of Governor Pete Wilson’s administration, the legislature, and of course, the media for months. And while this failure was relatively modest as we shall see in comparison with other more significant debacles, the DMV fiasco remains in the chords of memory especially for many in state of California government during and after that time.

This DMV event, as painful as it was for so many, did open the door at least ostensibly for potential, and significant reform – or so it was hoped.

It began with a bipartisan initiative to evaluate the state government’s entire multibillion-dollar annual IT portfolio. “The results were staggering. The state had more than a half dozen other projects with budgets far in excess of DMV’s and which were deemed to likewise be in danger of failing,” the new book says.

The study conducted by the impartial California State Auditor in late 1994 identified these IT projects as including “the Statewide Automated Child Support System (SACSS) – $300 million; the Child Welfare Services/Case Management System – $250 million; the Corrections Management Information System – $118 million; and the four consortiums under the Statewide Automated Welfare System (SAWS) which totaled well over a half a billion dollars, at the time the largest IT project in the state’s history.”

We trace these challenges over time. “Fast forward a quarter century to the summer of 2020, after numerous state IT management reorganizations, five governors and six different state Chief Information Officers (CIOs), a review of the state CIO’s IT Project Tracking scorecard, and official reports from the State Auditor’s office reveal that there are still nearly $2 billion invested in unfinished state IT projects which are in jeopardy of failure due to escalating costs, scheduled deliverable delays, failure to satisfy the customer’s business objectives, and other project management weaknesses.”

While these results are unacceptable, assigning blame or responsibility is challenging at best. However, the duration, scope, and breadth of these examples point to a long-endured structural or organizational problem in California state government as we shall see.

Our next column will examine these reforms following the DMV project, how they were identified, the governor’s and the legislature’s initiatives to codify them into law, and the results of those efforts.

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John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn serves as a senior advisor for government programs at MeriTalk. He was the first CIO for the both the State of California and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and was president of NASCIO.