California

$1 billion and climbing: new milestone for California government’s delayed tech program

The budget for California state government’s long-developing accounting program has surpassed $1 billion, and more spending will be required before all state departments are using it, according to program updates.

The Financial Information System of California, commonly known as Fi$Cal, received an additional $145 million — bringing the total to $1.06 billion — and a newly extended deadline of July 2020, according to a project oversight report the Department of Technology posted Monday.

The state started work on the project in 2004. Its last approved completion date had been this year. Repeated delays and rising costs made it a poster child for state government’s broader challenges with major technological overhauls, a systemic issue Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he is addressing.

The Department of Technology’s independent review called the new timeline “aggressive,” adding there is “no slack to recover schedule if delays occur,” while changing its status to “green” from “red” on the state’s IT project tracker, indicating improvement.

In departments where it has been successfully implemented, the program has tightened controls on payments to vendors and some employees, added transparency and improved a range of other functions, Miriam Ingenito, the program’s director, told legislators earlier this summer. The state budget has been produced with Fi$Cal since 2016 and about 20,000 state workers now use it, Ingenito noted. About 250,000 people work for California state government.

While the project is 98 percent functional, six departments still depend on legacy systems from around the 1980s to complete necessary financial tasks such as closing out month- and year-end financial statements, she said. Extended delays could threaten the state’s credit worthiness, State Controller Betty Yee told legislators in the spring.

On top of the departments that still depend on legacy systems, seven others have deferred adapting to Fi$Cal. When those seven start using it, more money will be required to get them up and running, Ingenito told told an Assembly subcommittees in June.

The deferred departments are Caltrans, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Water Resources, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the Department of Justice, the Department of Rehabilitation and the California Department of Technology itself — the agency overseeing the project.

A few agencies will never use the system, including CalPERS, CalSTRS, the University of California system and the Legislature.

Richard Gillihan, the Finance Department’s chief operating officer, told legislators the delay is partly due to slow uptake among workers in some departments.

“The project is deployed,” Gillihan said. “We don’t have technology challenges per se with Fi$Cal. This is a massive human change management effort at this point. With the benefit of hindsight and our experience we probably should have come out a little stronger on change management.”

Ingenito said some departments quickly adapted. Larger departments with more resources, capacity and sophistication tended to do better than smaller ones, and departments that appointed a high-level person to take responsibility for changes were the most successful, she said.

Cal Fire and California Highway Patrol are good examples, as is the Department of Parks and Recreation, which holds “Fi$Cal Friday” events to talk over and tackle problems, she said.

Ingenito said that while the Fi$Cal program has designated trained “superusers” across departments, workers in some departments don’t even know who the specialist is.

Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, said at the June hearing that the program still holds promise for the state.

“It’s actually really helped improve our work. We think it’s a very critical project, not just for our budgeting process but really for the entire state … To have one system where we are all integrated would be quite an amazing feat for the state,” Ting said.

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Wes Venteicher anchors The Bee’s popular State Worker coverage in the newspaper’s Capitol Bureau. He covers taxes, pensions, unions, state spending and California government. A Montana native, he reported on health care and politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh before joining The Bee in 2018.
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