California auditor sees high-tech failures once again
Elaine Howle retired the other day after more than two decades as a state auditor, but left a few reports that cement her legacy as a fierce watchdog of inefficiency and malfeasance within state and local governments.
Capitol insiders are waiting for the legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom to name his successor and reveal whether Howle’s independent and candid approach to often complex governance issues will continue.
Within days of Howle’s departure, one of the remaining reports was released, revisiting a thorny issue that dates back 16 years called the Financial Information System for California. It’s a goofy title written to justify a catchy acronym, FI $ cal.
Launched in 2005, FI $ cal was to be a comprehensive project that would replace dozens of incompatible and outdated accounting systems and thereby give officials and the public a more accurate and timely picture of state finances.
It has been a mess from the start, costing untold millions of dollars and still far from over, despite efforts by state bureaucrats to declare it complete, which Howle’s office and the other dog state custody, the legislative analyst’s office, have called it misleading. .
The most recent audit once again focuses on project delays and the lack of a realistic timeline for completion.
“The project office will not complete the project by its planned end date of June 2022,” the report says, citing understaffing and other obstacles to completion.
“Even when the project office officially declares the project complete,” the audit continued, “it will not have implemented all of the functionality promised, and this will likely result in significant expense.
“As we described in our two most recent reports, the project office has postponed the development of some features, reducing the number of key features the system will have when the project officially ends.
“Some of these features are important and play an important role in the functionality of FI $ Cal, such as statewide loan accounting functionality. Until these features are completed, the State Controller will continue to use its legacy system – a fact of concern given that one of the initial goals of the project was to replace stand-alone systems with a single, integrated system.
The report warns that the absence of a fully functioning system could adversely affect the state’s financial position.
“For the third year in a row,” he says, “the state will be releasing overdue financial statements, resulting in part from difficulties faced by state agencies in using FI $ Cal. Timely financial reporting is important for the state to maintain a high credit rating and access to federal funding. “
Unfortunately, FI $ cal is not an isolated example of dysfunction in the state’s use of high technology. Several other systems that promised more efficient and responsive government also fell behind or failed to deliver the expected benefits.
It is – or should be – an embarrassment that California struggles to use technology when the state is a world leader in the development of digital tools. Successive governors have attempted to remedy the situation, but none have succeeded.
Newsom is the latest governor to deal, so far unsuccessfully, with the state’s high-tech failures and this should be particularly embarrassing because before becoming governor he wrote a book, “Citizenville”, which is focused on how technology would improve governance.
The concept is correct, but the integration of technological tools into government has so far been unsuccessful. On the contrary, as the new FI $ cal audit indicates, it has been a negative factor in delaying the release of the data necessary to initiate bond issues, seek federal aid, and do the business of state differently.
CalMatters is a public service journalism firm committed to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories from Dan Walters go to Commentary.