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Newsom’s Promised High Tech Nirvana for California Government Fizzles

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Despite being the world capital of high technology, California government has stubbornly failed to employ technology effectively, Dan Walters says. (Shutterstock)
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California is the world capital of high technology, but one of the most puzzling – and infuriating – aspects of its government is a stubborn failure to employ technology effectively.

It’s particularly vexing because 10 years ago, the head of California’s government, Gavin Newsom, published a book, “Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government,” that touted the use of technology to improve government efficiency and responsiveness.

Just before then-Lt. Gov. Newsom’s book appeared, then-Gov. Jerry Brown had created a new state agency, the California Department of Technology, or CDT, charged with cutting through bureaucratic bungling on use of information technology, which had led to multiple projects wasting untold millions of dollars without becoming effective tools.

Dan Walters with a serious expression

Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

CDT now has about 1,000 employees and a nearly $1 billion annual budget, but has not produced the high-tech nirvana envisioned in Newsom’s book, even though his election as governor gave him the opportunity to make it happen.

The reality of what has occurred – or not occurred – on Newsom’s watch is illustrated by something that happened last year.

The state’s most spectacular example of California’s high-tech shortcomings is a project called “Financial Information System for California,” an awkward name devised to create a cute acronym, “FI$Cal.”

It’s supposedly a comprehensive financial management tool that seamlessly empowers state agencies to handle the many billions of dollars that the state spends each year. However, it’s never been fully baked, as the state auditor’s office has repeatedly pointed out.

At one point, project managers tried to declare it complete and therefore no longer subject to the auditor’s oversight, but when that failed, Newsom and the Legislature slipped such a declaration into a budget “trailer” bill. He also vetoed legislation that would have required detailed annual reports on the number and length of FI$Cal’s unplanned outages and changes need to make the project work well enough to comply with federal reporting requirements.

Good Enough for Government Work

In other words, even though FI$Cal is still a troubled work in progress, state law now deems it good enough for government work. So much for Newsom’s lofty vision of California’s becoming a high-tech utopia.

Last week, in a new report, state auditor Grant Parks told the Legislature that California’s high-tech efforts have fallen short because the CDT – the agency created a decade ago to make technology work – is itself deficient.

Point-by-point, the auditor describes what CDT is doing – or not doing – that inhibits the efficient use of technology.

“CDT has broad responsibility and authority over nearly all aspects of IT in the State, including providing strategic direction, assessing IT security, and performing project oversight,” Parks wrote in his report. “However, it has not fulfilled important responsibilities in these areas, resulting in significant consequences for the state. CDT has not provided the state with sufficient strategic direction to ensure that critical IT systems are modernized, secure, and that the systems effectively provide important services. For example, CDT has yet to identify the systems statewide that are outdated or obsolete and require modernization, leaving the state at risk of outage or failure.”

The report cites one obvious example of a critical IT system failure, the 2016 meltdown of the Department of Motor Vehicles’ IT apparatus that “left some offices unable to provide certain services for about two weeks, which affected its ability to process driver’s licenses and vehicle registration transactions.”

CDT officials rejected most of the auditor’s criticisms, contending, in essence, that it is doing a good job of fulfilling its assigned mission. But Parks counters that the report’s findings are well justified. The proof is, to use an old phrase, in the pudding.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 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. For more columns by Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.