California government vexed by persistent high-tech difficulties 

When California Auditor Elaine Howle excoriated the state court system for mismanaging a very expensive computer system this month, it was a new chapter in an old, sad saga.

California, the home of cutting-edge technology, has a checkered history of using it effectively for government.

The statewide case management project, managed by the Administrative Office of the Courts, is the current poster child for rising costs and questionable utility.

Its costs, Howle noted, have escalated sharply and now are expected to hit $1.9 billion by the time it is completed four years hence — not counting tens of millions more that local courts will have to spend to use it. Meanwhile, many local judges are complaining that it doesn’t work well and is consuming funds that would be better spent offsetting budget-related cutbacks in court operations.

As Howle was issuing her sharply critical report, newly inaugurated state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson was wrestling with another much-troubled technology system and IBM, its contractor.

Richard Zeiger, Torlakson’s top deputy, fired off a letter to IBM complaining that it had failed to fix problems with the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, calling IBM’s overall performance “substandard,” and warning that its contract may be terminated “for default.”

CALPADS is supposed to be a tool that can track the progress of nearly 6 million K-12 students. But its implementation is many months overdue while costs have escalated, and the state faces federal sanctions for missing deadlines for reporting data on graduation, dropouts and other issues.

Last October, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed $7 million for the project, signaling unhappiness with its progress. Successor Jerry Brown hasn’t restored the money and called for a review of its efficacy.

Not all state technology programs are failing. But state agencies appear to have particular difficulty with large, complex projects, especially when they are statewide in scope and involve local agencies such as school districts. One previous debacle was a statewide child-support collection system.

In 2009, the Legislature’s budget analyst published an overview of technology system procurement and suggested reforms, particularly more input and evaluation before contracts are awarded and more sophisticated bidding practices, to improve chances of success.

The court system’s mess indicates that the legislative analyst’s suggestions are well-founded.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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Dan Walters

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