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May 9, 2013

The State Worker: Small project a big test for California's government tech skills

At the state's human resources headquarters in Sacramento, a small-but-significant test of state employee computer prowess is rebooting.

At the state's human resources headquarters in Sacramento, a small-but-significant test of state employee computer prowess is rebooting.

The Department of Human Resources' project to make the state's job website more user-friendly and efficient is already running late and over budget.

Sort of. Planners at another agency two years ago thought the system would cost about $4.7 million to launch in 2015. CalHR officials inherited the project and revised the numbers to something they thought more realistic: $10 million with a rollout in 2017.

There's little doubt that the department needs to straighten the misshapen path to getting a job with the state. It wasn't all that long ago that civil service exams used fill-in-the-bubble computer cards. Many job applications, tests and notices are still paper-only.

The state's website is clunky. You'll get nothing if you put "lawyer" or "janitor" in the job search engine. Use "attorney" or "custodian" and you'll get a list of jobs. Why? Because those are the official words the state uses to describe those classifications.

The new system will fix those kinds of unfriendly features and take the state job process paperless, said CalHR spokeswoman Pat McConahay.

Unlike state projects that have used outside firms to design and install mega-computer systems, CalHR plans to use in-house talent complemented with temporary hires and just a few consultants. About $8 million of the system's $10 million budget will be absorbed by the department because staff will do the work.

State employees and unions have argued for decades that outsourcing tech projects to private firms injects a mercenary motive that drives up costs and produces inferior results. State workers, they say, care more because contractors don't have to live with the outcome of their work.

They point to a long list of failed and budget-busting IT projects shepherded by contract firms. There's the CalPERS Web-based computer system (it's running, but went $260 million over budget) and the state courts' Case Management System (canceled after running up a $500 million tab). Don't forget the MyCalPays state payroll system overhaul (dumped after running up a $250 million bill).

And then, there's the massive FI$Cal project, a $671 million undertaking – slimmed down from nearly $2 billion – to bring the state's fractured financial systems into a one-stop data clearinghouse. A state audit in January said the project has struggled to hire and keep qualified staff and still needed to set long-term goals.

Of course, the other side of the argument is that government lacks the expertise to pull off big tech projects and that it could use a little more of the private sector's fear of failure and competitive sense to shake up complacency.

The CalHR project is a relatively small and simple test of that debate, and a check of the state's readiness to handle high-tech.

Call The Bee's Jon Ortiz, (916) 321-1043. Follow him on Twitter @thestateworker and read his blog, The State Worker.

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