Patterico's Pontifications

1/12/2020

More Golden State Dysfunction

Filed under: General — JVW @ 8:10 pm



[guest post JVW]

First, a personal anecdote: In my neighborhood, local officials decided that a right-turn lane was needed at a heavily trafficked intersection of two major streets to alleviate morning rush hour backups. The project consisted of building about 200 feet of turn lane in the northbound lane along with about 200 feet of merge lane in the eastbound lane on the cross street. That intersection was blessed with extra-wide sidewalks, so carving out turn lanes from them was not a major imposition. Sounds simple enough, right? Because the street running north to south is officially a state highway, the project was turned over to state authorities and work commenced around Memorial Day.

Work is still in progress.

We residents have been given several reasons for the inability to bring the project, now in its eighth month, to completion. We were told that digging in the street had uncovered issues with drainage that needed to be addressed, then we were told that a new traffic light for the project was on backorder, then we were told that crews had been diverted to the wildfire areas (this coming over a month after the originally scheduled completion date had passed). Now, with the turn lanes carved out and apparently only the repaving of the street left to complete the project, it seems to be stuck in neutral. Throughout this entire process, even during the summer when most of the work was to take place, days and even weeks have gone by with no one from the crew anywhere to be seen, and equipment just sits there unused. I last saw a construction worker on the job site the week after Thanksgiving.

I think of this project as a metaphor for exactly what ails California here in the first part of the Twenty-first Century. The state knows what needs to be done, has the money and the personnel to do it, yet somehow is incapable of seeing an initiative to completion and there is no longer any accountability for failure. Now, in today’s Daily Breeze, we learn of — brace yourselves — another state project, this one of major importance, that is riddled with failure. From the article:

It was a logical, exquisitely simple idea: Build one single computer system to track and manage California’s bounteous spending of public money.

When work began to modernize the state’s creaky mishmash of financial computer systems, the new super system was supposed to cost $617 million, be complete in four years, take care of all of California’s financial reporting needs — and be so transparent that even regular folks could easily scour state spending.

That’s not quite how things are working out.

Eight years later, the aspirational Fi$Cal system remains unfinished. It has shed or delayed what analysts consider vital functions. Officials have ignored criticisms, and the project’s price tag has officially exploded to more than $1 billion — a figure the state auditor says is woefully misleading, and surely much higher.

Let that sink in: the project has doubled in time, is very close to having doubled in cost, yet is still, as we learn later in the article, not expected to be officially complete until sometime next year. California State Auditor, Elaine Howle, who has been sounding the alarm about this project for the past couple of years, is not pleased and has submitted a scathing report to the governor and legislature:

This letter report highlights several urgent concerns with the project to implement the Financial Information System for California (FI$Cal). Among our concerns is the manner in which the 2019 project plan update sets a formal end date for the project even though the FI$Cal project will not have implemented promised functionality. Specifically, the updated project plan continues the project’s trend of removing key features from the project’s scope, increasing the budget, and developing unrealistic schedules, resulting in a product that will lack crucial features, such as bond and loan accounting tools, and will not include the transition of the State’s annual financial reporting to FI$Cal. In addition, the 2019 project plan update also does not guarantee that oversight will continue until the delivery of these features—described as key functionalities in project documentation—and it requires an aggressive schedule that is already proving unrealistic. Finally, the project’s financial documentation understates the true cost of FI$Cal. It omits some costs that the governing entities have deferred until after they have declared the project complete, and the 2019 project plan update does not reflect the significant contract and staffing costs that entities incurred when trying to transition from their legacy systems to FI$Cal. As such, the reported cost of FI$Cal will be understated.

It’s a long paragraph, I know, but the irony is rich that a system designed to bring more efficiency and transparency to California spending is mired in bureaucratic tangles and opacity, as outlined in this Daily Breeze editorial and the observations of long-time California political journalist Dan Walters. Whether it is the ballad of high-speed rail, building dwellings for the homeless, or even building 400 feet of turn lanes, governments throughout the Golden State simply cannot be trusted to make effective use of taxpayer dollars. Yet you wouldn’t expect the bureaucracy of the Financial Information System for California to be chagrined at their failure, would you? In fact, far from it:

“The focus of the Department of FI$Cal has always been delivering a quality information technology product for the state of California and assisting our users in managing the changes they are experiencing to their day to day business processes as they learn to use the FI$Cal system,” [spokeswoman Shanda] Thorntona said in an emailed statement.

“As of July 2019, we have delivered 93 percent of the system functionality. There are 152 departments and more than 18,000 end users processing $305 billion in expenditures each year using the FI$Cal system. As a result of having the budget data centralized for the last four years for the first time, the enacted budget has the same level of detail as the Governor’s proposed budget.”

The cost of the system has fluctuated through the years, she said, including a $1.6 billion estimate in 2007, years before contracts were awarded.

The key features referenced in Howle’s report are deferred and not omitted, she said. They will be implemented as part of operations and maintenance during fiscal year 2021, and FI$Cal has extended oversight an additional year as a result.

“We are focusing on delivering the critical functions that will allow us to produce the book of record by June,” she said.

In other words: Hey, at one time we thought this could cost $1.6 billion, but then we eventually assured the legislature that we could do the project for about 40% of that figure, so why are you getting all out-of-sorts just because we undershot the mark by so much? I mean, it’s not the first time this state — home to Silicon Valley and scores of innovative technology companies — has seen its government fail miserably in building a state-wide tracking system. It’s almost as if maybe we shouldn’t trust Sacramento with these sorts of projects, perish the thought.

When the history of the failure of the Golden State (this is me donning my pessimistic hat) is written, there’s a good chance that historians will trace it to the moment that taxpayer dollars went from being used primarily for the benefit of all Californians to providing sinecures for bungling people lucky enough to be public employees. That’s not to say that there aren’t excellent and honest state employees out there; there most assuredly are plenty of them. It’s just that their efforts are now being swamped by the politically-protected incompetence of their colleagues. Another inevitability of living in a one-party state.

– JVW

23 Responses to “More Golden State Dysfunction”

  1. According a quote in the article from an open government advocacy group, only forty-nine other states have a working digital system to track inflow and outflow of state funds.

    JVW (54fd0b)

  2. Heh!

    nk (dbc370)

  3. Just remember, you are not a citizen anymore. You are a revenue generating unit. Get your ass to work

    steveg (354706)

  4. This is hardly the first multi-million-dollar computer boondoggle the state has produced. Bet you that 1000s of change orders from myriad agencies had something to do with the failure.

    Kevin M (19357e)

  5. It’s just that their efforts are now being swamped by the politically-protected incompetence of their colleagues.

    It’s not incompetence (although there is that), it’s the Iron Law of Bureaucracy.

    In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely

    Kevin M (19357e)

  6. A former california governor used the latinx population as a whipping boy to win an election. He won that election. But as paul newman said to richard boone in the movie hondo. “hey I got a question how are you going to get back down the hill?” Republicans are lucky that the latinx democrats and their lefty allies haven’t sent them to re-education camps.

    asset (fd8a24)

  7. Cantafordya

    mg (8cbc69)

  8. asset (fd8a24) — 1/13/2020 @ 12:13 am

    RE: “Latinx

    Yeah, yet another fabricated word to impose “gender-neutral-speech.” You see, there are no latinx people. There are Latinos and Latinas. words have gender in Spanish, dontchaknow.

    So as an American of Mexican descent I take great umbrage at this novel, oppressive, and culture appropriating development.

    Please cease and desist.

    felipe (023cc9)

  9. Republicans are lucky that the latinx democrats and their lefty allies haven’t sent them to re-education camps.
    asset (fd8a24) — 1/13/2020 @ 12:13 am

    It seems to me that you are their most recent graduate. “Latinx.” Take pause to consider why this word is now in your working vocab.

    felipe (023cc9)

  10. Haiku, where are you? I need a clever song parody! I find myself too verklempt to make the attempt.

    Oh well, I’m off with my “honey-do” list. Sorry for picking on you, asset. (said with measured suspicion and appraising eyes)

    felipe (023cc9)

  11. Who can compete with the Red Hot Chili Peppers?

    nk (dbc370)

  12. Throughout this entire process, even during the summer when most of the work was to take place, days and even weeks have gone by with no one from the crew anywhere to be seen,

    That’s very common with public works projects in the United States and the on;y exception is when ther are emergencies, when somehow they can manage to do things fast, if there is very short time frame given for it. I heard this doesn’t happen in Canada.

    there is no longer any accountability for failure.

    What! There was a time there was?

    Well, maybe at one time there was a possibility of somebody getting fired, or not hired for more. Also, when something is newly established, it tends to be better than later, as things gradually deteriorate.

    continues the project’s trend of removing key features from the project’s scope, increasing the budget, and developing unrealistic schedules,

    This is acompromise. The burden of failure is shared:

    Some of it goes to extending the date, some of it goes to eliminating features, and there’s a compromise also with recognizing failure – the date is not extending enough, and the cost is underestimated.

    Clearly there’s something very systemic involved here.

    the moment that taxpayer dollars went from being used primarily for the benefit of all Californians to providing sinecures for bungling people lucky enough to be public employees.

    That would about the time when collective bargaining started.

    Sammy Finkelman (2cb3c3)

  13. felipe (023cc9) — 1/13/2020 @ 4:46 am

    Going by the identical style of writing and identical political point of view, I’m pretty sure that “asset” is the same troll* that previously posted here under the name of “lany”.

    *Or same bot, for all I know.

    kishnevi (496414)

  14. On the main topic….here in Florida, with a Department of Transportation that’s run by Republicans in state with Republican governnor and legislature, the projects seem to take just as long as not longer. And as for cost….consider this
    https://fdotwww.blob.core.windows.net/sitefinity/docs/default-source/info/co/news/newsreleases/1118209-fdot-budget-final.pdf

    $865.7 million in resurfacing to include 2,057 new lane miles

    works out to a little under half a million dollars per mile of resurfacing.

    And

    $2.8 billion for highway construction to include 52 new lane miles

    Works out to approximately $53.85 million dollars per new mile of road.

    And that’s assuming “lane miles” equal actual miles, and doesn’t count (for example) one mile of a six lane highway as six lane miles.

    kishnevi (496414)

  15. and the cost is underestimated

    It’s dribbled out over time.

    Here’s an artvle that attempts to explain this process, but it can’t be the full truth or else this would have been ended by now:

    https://www.governing.com/columns/smart-mgmt/gov-government-project-deadline.html

    The claim is they don’t get enough information when planning because they skip steps

    One such project, according to Stokes, was the installation of a fire suppression device in the city’s central library. “Very late in the project, they had to retrofit it when they realized they didn’t have access to electricity close enough to the device.”

    ??? Wouldn;t it have been cheaper to re-wire the building? Maybe they only needed an electrician?

    Sammy Finkelman (2cb3c3)

  16. So as an American of Mexican descent I take great umbrage at this novel, oppressive, and culture appropriating development.

    As a fellow person of gender, I express solidarity with your umbrage.

    Dave (1bb933)

  17. felipe @12

    I found Colonel Haiku here:

    http://acecomments.mu.nu/?post=385163 – comment number 614. One line. Posted on January 06, 2020 at 2:47 PM

    That was the only recent one I found. The previous one was posted on December 17 and was to link to a Patterico post, claiming it was an example of something not good written by never trumper:

    http://patterico.com/2019/12/18/the-house-should-impeach-donald-trump

    Sammy Finkelman (2cb3c3)

  18. $2.8 billion for highway construction to include 52 new lane miles

    Works out to approximately $53.85 million dollars per new mile of road.

    And that’s assuming “lane miles” equal actual miles, and doesn’t count (for example) one mile of a six lane highway as six lane miles.

    They might be adding the cost of acquiring ROW and other pre-engineering costs, EIS prep onto those miles – but then again, FDOT does utilize a lot of night-construction (due to heat levels) so that might push labor costs up because of time-and-a-half or even double time.

    urbanleftbehind (5eecdb)

  19. Night construction seems to correlate with how busy the road is, not the temperature. (Of course, weather has an impact. We should be called the Rainy State, not the Sunshine State.)

    Things are not helped by what seems to be AT&T’s current project of replacing every telephone pole in its area of service.

    kishnevi (496414)

  20. Here you go, felipe:

    Vamos a Tepa,
    Tierra soñada,
    Donde la vida es un primor

    Click to hear a capella.

    nk (dbc370)

  21. I appreciate the replies to my comment. It took awhile for that dude to get going in that video, nk. It’s a hoot! Guess what? he’s got more views than this video.

    felipe (023cc9)

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