How Silicon Valley Can Help Solve State Government’s Technology Woes
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Commentary

How Silicon Valley Can Help Solve State Government’s Technology Woes

President Obama turned to the private sector to help fix healthcare.gov and California Gov. Gavin Newsom should do the same with DMV and other state agencies.

Problems caused by a state financial system upgrade are jeopardizing California’s ability to publish timely and accurate financial statements. Troubles with the Fiscal Information System for California (FI$Cal), the state’s single financial management system, are the latest technology problem to adversely impact government operations. To limit future failures, Sacramento should take more guidance from Silicon Valley.

Big tech companies, while far from error-free, regularly conquer systems and challenges much larger than those confronting the state. Google, for example, not only handles billions of searches daily, but also provides a wide array of other services such as real-time maps and a suite of cloud-based productivity tools. Other Bay Area firms that provide reliable, high-traffic systems services include Uber, Dropbox and non-profit Wikimedia. Many of these technology platforms frequently update their software with little or no impact on users.

By contrast, government technology rollouts are often late, overbudget and disruptive. User interfaces provided to state workers and the general public are often antiquated.  The $918 million FI$Cal project, which started in 2005, is now expected to blow through its July 2019 implementation deadline. In March, California State Controller Betty Yee notified the legislature that FI$Cal’s problems could delay the release of California’s audited financial statements and subject them to adverse audit opinions as departments are obliged to submit estimates rather than actuals for consolidation.

Other troubled projects, according to the California Department of Technology, include a child welfare service system and a Department of Corrections video surveillance system. Gov. Gavin Newsom has rightly castigated the Department of Motor Vehicles for not being able to accept credit cards. Meanwhile, the University of California has struggled to implement a systemwide payroll method.

Admittedly public agencies are subject to constraints that prevent them from embracing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s mantra of “move fast and break things,” but they should be able to achieve better results than these.

In 2013, the Obama administration took flak over the disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov, the Affordable Care Act’s exchange. The online system proved unable to handle heavy user volumes at launch time, resulting in data loss and substantial downtime.

Ultimately, healthcare.gov was saved, in part, because the administration asked Silicon Valley technologists to take over the project. The new technology team introduced software development best practices that are often not used, or not used effectively, in the public sector. One such approach is “agile,” in which integrated teams of users and developers create and test frequent incremental releases rather than building systems all at once.

The healthcare.gov salvage project later morphed into the US Digital Service, now part of the General Services Administration. Another forward-looking technology group at the federal level is 18F. Both of these federal organizations apply agile and other best-programming practices to government software maintenance and development. These groups typically rely on modern, open-source platforms. This contrasts with traditional government projects that use older technologies and expensive. licensed software products like Oracle.

Many of the same best practices are employed by Code for America, a Bay Area non-profit that provides technology assistance to cities using modestly paid fellows and volunteers who collaborate during hackathons and more frequent civic hacking nights. Code for America software is helping three California counties locate and expunge thousands of marijuana convictions, for example.

But while we have in-house technology consultants at the federal level and Code for America at the local level, the state has had less exposure to new programming ideas. Until new software development principles flow upstream to state leaders in Sacramento, we can continue to expect costly and disappointing rollouts.

Fortunately, Newsom understands this issue. As lieutenant governor, he wrote a book titled “Citizenville,” which described efforts to make government software tools more responsive. Now he is proposing establishing an Office of Digital Innovation. If the state legislature funds this office, it is possible that Sacramento could begin to participate in the technology revolution that has swept Silicon Valley, parts of the federal government and many of our cities and counties.

This column first appeared in The Mercury News.

Marc Joffe is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation.