[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.