By Brian Joseph
Capitol Watchdog Column
The Orange County Register
March 3, 2008
SACRAMENTO It seemed like a simple question.
For years, the state had been hopelessly challenging a verdict against the Department of Education, and Orange County Assemblyman Mike Duvall wanted to know how much the appeals cost.
"When I was the mayor of Yorba Linda," Duvall said, "I could go to our finance director and say, 'How much did we spend on Lawsuit A versus Lawsuit B?' and she could push a button and pull up (the cost). I call that accountability."
Instead, Duvall says he got the runaround. He said the department told him it would take time to calculate the figure and that every department has a budget for legal fees, but he never got a solid number.
Eventually, Duvall sent his staff to the controller's office. They received a stack of documents an inch and a half high.
"At this point, I still haven't got an answer to my satisfaction," said Duvall.
In truth, this is nothing new -- ready answers are rare in state government. By just asking around, I found the state can't easily answer these basic questions:
*How much does it spend on software?
*How much fuel does it use each month?
*How many children drop out of school?
It's enough to make you lose faith in Sacramento.
"The state's problems with technology are well-known," said Jim Mayer, when I asked him why such questions persist. "But we are not as quick to acknowledge the state seems to have an aversion to the information itself."
Mayer is the executive director of California Forward, a nonprofit bent on improving the way government makes decisions, and he's convinced computer technology is key to not only answering these questions but also fixing state bureaucracy.
Mayer used to lead the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state body that investigates government operations, and he saw up close how the state simply doesn't have the right software to track resources or people.
"What gets measured, gets managed," Mayer said -- and there clearly isn't enough measuring going on.
That's why the American Electronics Association, the nation's largest high-tech trade association, wants the state to overhaul how it acquires tracking software. Roxanne Gould, vice president of California government and public affairs, says the system is so "broken" that not only is the state excluding good vendors, but it's also not asking the right questions about how it wants to use data and technology.
Mayer, however, cautions that it's not as simple as just collecting more data. As it is, the state already collects warehouses of data, but it doesn't gather the right information.
"There is information available," Mayer said. "You've got to have the right data sets."
And even when there is good data, Mayer says, the policy-makers don't always listen. In an environment like Sacramento, politics trumps data often enough that Mayer fears technology alone won't fix California unless policy-makers start demanding better information and using it.
What California needs, he said, is a change to performance-based governance, where the state explicitly develops goals for its various departments and programs and then uses objective data to judge whether they're actually meeting those goals. That would provide true government accountability, but Mayer's not holding his breath.
"There's not a constituency for good, honest facts," he said.
Indeed, an ambitious proposal to track all the students in California -- and answer that pesky question of how many drop out each year -- has apparently been hindered by Capitol politics.
In 2002, the Legislature approved the creation of the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System or CALPADS, which would assign a 10-digit ID number to every student in California.
The idea was that the tracking numbers would allow the state to follow students when they drop out of one district and enroll in another. Without them, the state didn't know whether a student leaving one district was enrolling elsewhere or actually dropping out. CALPADS would finally give the state good dropout numbers.
But the project was delayed for a year while the governor's Department of Finance took a long time reviewing a feasibility study drafted by the Department of Education, which is controlled by the superintendent of public instruction. Meanwhile, the Legislature has rejected calls for increased funding to help districts manage the data.
CALPADS isn't scheduled to roll out until fall 2009.
But it could be worse. In December, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hired Teresa Takai as our first state chief information officer, a new, Cabinet-level position with statutory authority over information-technology policy.
Meanwhile, some state officials are already demanding good information and accountability. In the Department of General Services, there's Will Semmes, the chief deputy director, who said, "We have to figure out how to get government to focus on results as much as it focuses on process."
And in the Legislature, there's Orange County Assemblyman Jose Solorio, who told me performance data should determine how the state allocates money. "I think there's been voices on this subject in the past," said Solorio, "and I think those voices are getting louder."
Even the most optimistic, however, have to admit the state still has a long way to go. When I asked Duvall if he thought he'd have gotten a straight answer on the cost of the lawsuit if the state had better tracking software, he laughed.
"No," he said. "Heck no. I don't think they want us to know what's going on."