A multimillion-dollar IT project has gone belly-up in California, throwing into stark relief the many ways in which a big and well intentioned technology strategy can come undone.
Background: Over 10 years ago, in 2001, the judicial council of the State of California, which sets policy for the state's enormous court system, approved the creation of the California Case Management System (CCMS). The goal was to replace 70 individual software systems for managing cases in California's various trial courts with a single system. According to a prepared statement from the council this week, "The concept was to improve public safety and business efficiencies by enabling trial courts to exchange information with each other as well as other justice system partners, such as law enforcement and to improve service to attorneys and the public."
Sadly, a decade and $500 million in taxpayer money later, the reality has fallen far short of the splendid vision. Just two "interim" systems are in place at seven of the state's 58 courts. That equates to CCMS handling about a quarter of the state's trial information.
Meanwhile, an independent report from Grant Thornton LLP puts estimates for rolling out the latest version of the software to 11 courts by 2020 at over $300 million.
So amid a general outcry about wasteful spending, the judicial council has agreed to stop deployment of the entire CCMS project. A CCMS Internal Committee will oversee how the courts can make best use of the technology they already have.
What went wrong? First off, the money ran out. Since 2008, the state of California has cut funds to the judicial branch by $653 million. There have been shutdowns of courts, layoffs, and reduced hours. Hardly the atmosphere for rolling out a project priced at a total of $1.9 billion.
In February, the California State Auditor listed several other elements that contributed to the demise of CCMS:
Lack of planning. The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), which was charged with overseeing the CCMS implementation, didn't perform the necessary cost/benefit analysis or cost estimates prior to launching the project. According to the auditor, "in 2004 the cost estimate was $260 million and by 2010 the estimated cost was $1.9 billion."
Lack of coordination. Apparently, the AOC didn't successfully keep track of the project, documenting its ongoing expenses and goals.
No buy-in. The project barreled ahead without the funding and approval of all 58 of California's courts. This resulted in a piecemeal implementation, and without all the courts included the value of the project was reduced. Further, the superior courts have dug in their heels, complaining about the system and refusing to move ahead with it.
No independent oversight. Despite the enormous size of the CCMS project, the AOC didn't enlist ongoing outside advice -- virtually a necessity in a project this huge -- until the rollout was underway. As a result, mistakes were made that were difficult to correct or reverse.
In fairness, there are observers who maintain that CCMS as it's installed is an improvement. "CCMS works. Unfortunately, we don't have the resources to deploy it," stated Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye in this week's judicial council statement.
Despite defenders, the colossal project and its stoppage has drawn plenty of negative attention. Here's how Michael Krigsman, CEO of consultancy Asuret, summarizes the situation:
California has a history of developing large, multiyear projects with enormous budgets. Unfortunately, the state's track record includes cost overruns and delays such as demonstrated here. This is not a new problem for California, a state that can ill afford this level of waste. Given this history, it appears the state needs to develop a new paradigm for IT project delivery, probably based on more decisive leadership and smaller projects. Certainly, the current approach is not working well.
The CCMS constituents have also been mocked heartily. Check out the video below:
There must be a better way! The scenario you describe could have happened on Mad Men.
It's still amazing to me that a project could become so big and ungainly -- even though smaller portions did work. Why didn't anybody ask more questions sooner? Golf and lunches are one thing; but the SI was also sufficiently reimbursed to warrant some accountability.
Don't you all see the modus operandi after all these years?
The SI company, we all know who they are, and in this instance mentioned just once in five web sites, wine, golf, and dine the decision makers for up to three years. Yes, they have the staying power. Typically a partner needs to generate revenue of $100m every three years.
They then draft a sure-win contract, where the SI gets paid no matter the outcome. Of course the program managers, directors, procurement experts, lawyers on the buyer's side thought they had a water-tight contract. But also being recipients of wine, golf, and dinner, they tend to be a little lenient when some of the obviously one-sided clauses that provide for an escape come up for clarification.
The reality is that the SI can be incompetent to manage a project of such a scale, and has no intention other than to make money, and more money through variation orders along the way. VOs are the greatest profit generator as the buyer is by now locked in and stuck and in a non-negotiable situation.
The buyers are newbies when it comes to buying IT systems. They will be held responsible by the SI for failing to provide clear non-conflicting requirements and specifications, failing to provide answers to queries promptly or accurately, failing to organize the resources to review the system at various stages of development, and failing to conduct the acceptance tests (basically debugging alpha and beta versions of the system) in a competent manner and presenting the defects in the allocated time window. As a result, the system is automatically deemed received and accepted, according to, what else, the contract.
Such stories will repeat for many decades to come.
Starting small... what a concept! This project certainly appeared to be doomed by enormous and unreachable goals and expectations. It toppled under that weight. While some portions of the project were clearly successful, it looks like the big goal was fundamentally unreachable. It might have been better to have built on a few projects organically than to try for this world-beating vision.
Indeed, scucci, this situation has happened more than once. High-ticket consultants can hide behind noble concepts and fast talk, it seems. Better to go with a vendor or a smaller firm in some instances.
So years agao they set out with a worthy mission, but somehow got lost among the way. While, this is certainly a cautionary tale about IT gone wrong and bureaucracy, the issue of too many systems and inadqueate information sharing in the California system still exists. It seems like stopping the plan is an easy decision - albeit 9 or 10 years too late.
More importantly, how do they move forward to serve the California public. I hope they begin to look at smaller steps, ways to get started, ways to have interim or partial successes. They should Dream Big (which they have been doing), but start small and find success.
The way laws change, people switch jobs and technology changes - any government project with a long timeframe seems doomed from the gate.
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