Yet another computer fiasco in home of Silicon Valley

Feb. 9, 2013

By Chris Reed

Friday’s news that state Controller John Chiang had fired the second contractor hired to upgrade the state government’s computer payroll system for incompetence and poor work — a few years after the first contractor was fired for the same reason — is an amazing commentary on the disconnect between the genius of California’s private sector and the stupidity of Sacramento.

This is where the information technology revolution began! And we have a payroll system built on punch-card computers from the 1970s? And after nearly a decade of trying to fix it, we’ve made no progress???

“This is the home of Silicon Valley; it’s so embarrassing,” said Debra Bowen.

But that wasn’t Bowen in her present role as California’s secretary of state. That was what she said in 1999, when she was a state senator commenting on another computer debacle.

In April 2012, I whined about a Sacramento Bee report which (my description) warned that “the California Public Employees’ Retirement System was having so many problems with its new $514 million computer system that some retirees are getting notices that their health insurance policies are being canceled because of CalPERS’ nonpayment of premiums.”

Computer debacles the Sacramento norm

As I detailed then, this was nothing new:

“In 1994, a state audit found the Department of Motor Vehicles wasted nearly $50 million on a computer ‘modernization’ project that would actually have yielded a slower computer system than the relic it was to replace.

“In 1999, Gov. Gray Davis canceled an $18 million state program to integrate computer systems tracking welfare and social services recipients because it offered no hope of progress – the fifth failed effort at the same task that decade. The state ended up paying fines of nearly $1 billion for delays in meeting a federal mandate to have a functional computerized system to track child support payments.

“In 2005, a Sacramento Bee report found that efforts to implement reforms of the state prison system were impossible to evaluate for their effectiveness because the state Department of Corrections – despite huge budget increases – had never set up a central computer database to track individual prisoners and employees as it was directed to do in 1992. This poor tracking led to more violence in overcrowded prisons and to arguably higher recidivism because of an inability to evaluate which prisoners would respond to programs meant to help them integrate back into public life.”

This next paragraph involves the project where Chiang fired the contractor Friday:

“In 2009, efforts to furlough state employees and reduce their pay were called impossible by experts in and out of state government because the state payroll system relied on decrepit computers using half-century-old programming language. The ’21st Century Project’ upgrade of the system – originally bid out to a contractor at $69 million – now seems likely to cost $500 million.

“In 2011, a state audit lambasted a planned statewide computer system meant to link courts in all 58 counties. The audit said the system could end up costing $1.9 billion – seven times the original $260 million estimate.”

Do you, yunno, see a pattern here?

I see this as part of a larger continuum in which California Democrats and much of the media who constantly and at times correctly rail against the private sector for corruption, cutting corners and being amoral completely absolve the public sector when seeing similar epic fiascos. Why? Do even Democrats believe the cheap jokes about “government work”? Apparently.

It’s 2013, and even after spending more than $250 million, California has a payroll system based on computer programs from the 1970s. The same California where computer geniuses have changed the world with their hardware and software breakthroughs since the 1970s.

Write your own punchline.

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