Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Pyramid Schemes: Reorganizing California's Government

So far we've counted three major flaws in California's State Performance Review:

The authors of the Performance Review appear to be fastened to a rigid mindset that views the whole world as an organization chart. Like 19th century Prussians, they truely believe in the abstract idea of "the State":

"The State is absolutely rational inasmuch as it is the actuality of the substantial will which it possesses in the particular self-consciousness once that consciousness has been raised to consciousness of its universality... The march of God in the world, that is what the State is. The basis of the State is the power of reason actualising itself as will." (And no, it does not make more sense in the original German.)

This realization -- that the Reviewers are moved as much by faith as by cost savings -- helps us understand the motive for Recommendation #GG 09, a proposal to fold all existing department call centers into one single central state information center, using one single toll free number and one single web portal. Monotheism demands no less. The worship of the ideal "State" also explains why the Reviewers so dislike the diverse, untidy patchwork of bureaus, agencies and offices that together in practice make up the government of this huge, diverse region we call "California". The Reviewers seek reform so as to purify the State, to "prioritize" from the top down, to "co-ordinate and consolidate", to achieve "logical efficiencies" and eliminate redundant information. Over 100 boards and commissions with members representing the public are to be liquidated because they are "inefficient" -- a sign that citizen involvement in public administration does not rank high on the Reviewers' performance metric.

Government must be reorganized, we are told, in order to make it "accountable". The Review positively buzzes with "accountability". In a business corporation, where ultimately only profit matters, accountability means assigning a task to someone in the organization, giving them reasonable resources to accomplish it, measuring the results, and then rewarding success or punishing failure. The Review team sees it a bit differently, tho: "Accountability assumes clearly defined lines of leadership, responsibility and authority."

"Leader. Authority. Responsible."

This sounds a bit military. Have we ever heard that "clearly defined lines of leadership" stuff before?

"Jawohl, Mein Fuehrer! ... Sorry, Mr. President."

The new State Organization Plan resembles the futuristic vision of Los Angeles in 2019 AD that opened the movie Blade Runner.

The machinery of government will reside in eleven giant pyramids that dominate the landscape -- pyramids resembling Mayan Temples as designed by Albert Speer. A Secretary (a/k/a "High Priest") will stand at the apex of each new Ministry, and Gov. Narcissus will float serenely above them all, tethered by a line on the organization chart that also connects an enhanced "Office of Management and Budget" (a/k/a "Power Behind the Throne".) None of the other state elected officials have lines connecting them to any of the pyramids, so sooner or later they will presumably just float away, off the charts on their way to the Outer Worlds.

Q: What's wrong with this picture? A: Just about everything. For instance:

California happened to be a fairly early adopter (as states go) of data systems back in the mainframe computer era of the 1960's and 1970's. Just as the IRS now struggles with master files written in an extinct computer language, we're now paying a price for that early start -- many of these systems are now "becoming obsolete due to deferred maintainance". 8 of 14 agencies surveyed had core financial management systems over 20 years old. The civil service lifers who keep the systems functioning are reaching retirement age and are not being replaced when they depart. Almost all state departments interviewed "have significant concerns with maintaining the existing systems", as well as a litany of other problems. The state has no plan in place to address the issue, and "the biggest obstacle to strategic planning is a lack of resources."

It looks like California is going to have to spend more and more just to keep things running as they are. As for modernizing the systems, ask your friends in Sacramento about the state's success rate with software mega-projects. (Hint: search on "+DMV +software +failure".) Then tell your friends about Recommendation SO #25, to replace whatever financial software applications are now used by some 200 different state agencies with "One Global Statewide Centralized Enterprise Application which interfaces with California's enterprise asset management and enterprise procurement tools." Your friends know how state government works, so tell them that the OGSCEA will have to be developed from scratch, that it will represent the "vision" of an interagency task force (i.e. be designed by a committee), and that all agencies will be ordered to freeze work on any new software that doesn't conform to the plan. (Do you really believe there is some magic new software out there that will replace every single program you've got on your PC? "One application to rule them all...")And then mention that the OGSCEA must be completely implemented by July 1, 2007, even tho we don't know what it will cost, there's no money for it in the current budget and the Reviewers don't understand that hidden expenses -- modifying standard procedures, retraining users, and maintaining a system -- typically dwarf the initial cost of writing the code. SO #25 concludes on a cheerful note: "The savings resulting from this recommendation cannot be estimated at this time." Do you suppose your friends are going to laugh? Or cry?

So -- the Reviewers want the state to undertake a major functional reorganization at the same time as the core data systems for a number of agencies are starting to fall apart, and the fix they propose isn't a plan, but a fantasy. Should make for quite a Night to Remember.

"Women and Governors first."

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