Dan Walters: Time to improve California's spotty record of overseeing big projects

dwalters@sacbee.comAugust 16, 2013 

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg's personal investigative staff issued a scathing report this week on a new state payroll system that so far has cost a quarter-billion dollars, but remains inoperable.

The Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes report used uncommonly harsh language to describe the debacle.

"Unlike other big state computer failures, the 21st Century Project collapsed not once, but twice, despite multiple layers of oversight designed to spot trouble early and keep the complex and massive undertaking on track," it said.

"A review of hundreds of pages of documents and interviews with many of those involved show the project suffered from lapses in due diligence, a failure to resolve core issues raised early and often, chronic turnover in leadership and what may have been unrealistic expectations."

The report basically accuses Controller John Chiang's office of misleading the Legislature and the public. Chiang finally canceled the project.

Singling out Chiang's project for very critical verbiage, plus a lengthy hearing in the Senate Thursday, may have been political payback for Chiang's decision two years ago to cut off legislators' salaries because of a late state budget – an act that made him very unpopular in the Capitol.

Payback or not, the report is damning – but just as easily could have been written about a number of other very expensive, just-as-flawed exercises in upgrading the state's digital tools.

The list of technology projects-gone-bad is very long. Recently, to cite another example, the State Judicial Council pulled the plug on a failed project to create a statewide court case management system that had cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

One of the great mysteries of California is why the home of the globe's most brilliant technology innovators has failed so miserably to digitize state government functions.

While we may shake our heads in amazement or disgust at such waste, it's a vitally important issue.

First, the state must upgrade its obsolescent, often incompatible computer systems because operating with them is becoming increasingly difficult.

More importantly, however, the abject inability of officials to implement technology is indicative of a broader deficiency in the management and delivery of big public projects.

There is an indirect, but unmistakable, relationship between costly and dysfunctional computer projects and, for instance, the Bay Bridge project, which has cost five times its original estimate, is a decade late and has serious defects.

And with other big projects in the works, such as twin water tunnels and a bullet train, improving managerial competence should be the first order of business before we waste even more billions of taxpayers' hard-earned dollars.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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