LOCAL CALIFORNIA POLITICS

When government software goes wrong

Public agencies are spending millions of dollars on software that doesn't work
How does this happen so often, whether it's the Obamacare website fiasco or a student tracking system failure?

If I ever decide to do a little moonlighting, I know exactly what line of work to pursue. I'm going to hook up with some tech people and sell multimillion-dollar software programs to public agencies.

Judging by the news, you just can't go wrong with an enterprise like that.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is still trying to work out the kinks in a $20-million student tracking system that marred the start of the current school year for countless teachers, students and parents, and this comes several years after a disastrous $112-million system flunked the test.

The Los Angeles Police Department spent tens of millions of dollars on an automated training and management system that seems to have failed in one of its chief objectives — the early identification of officers who "may be exhibiting patterns indicative of improper behavior." A consultant has been hired to evaluate the system and make recommendations by the end of NEXT YEAR, and no, I'm not kidding.

The state of California in just two years has scuttled a state payroll program that was $250 million over budget, dumped a court computer system that had already cost $500 million, and canceled a DMV technology system upgrade after spending $136 million on the project.

And last but never least, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is about to mark the one-year anniversary of a $162-million billing system in which 6,000 customers still don't have up-to-date bills. Could this help explain why the utility had a $247- million revenue shortfall in the year ending in June?

Last week, Councilman Tom LaBonge dialed the DWP customer service line and was told the wait for help would be 57 minutes. In other words, it might be quicker to dig a well and begin pumping your own water, or to contact a medium and connect with William Mulholland in the spirit world for some advice on how to figure out your bill.

I called customer service twice Tuesday, and each time, a voice recording said, "Your estimated wait time may exceed 30 minutes." That gave me plenty of time to read the snippy letter sent to the DWP last week by Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima), who complained that administrators have not been terribly cooperative in a state audit of the billing system, "which went over budget by more than $100 million."

So how does this sort of thing happen so frequently, whether it's the early Obamacare website fiasco or a student tracking system failure?

Automated systems consultant Mike Eveloff, a City Hall watchdog and Westside resident, suggests that it's because public officials aren't using their own money, and there aren't really any consequences for failure.

"It doesn't happen often in the private sector, because if it did you'd be fired," Eveloff said.

But Steve McConnell, a consultant and author of several guides on software development, thinks it's a little more complicated. He notes that the private sector has plenty of software failures too.

"This kind of work is challenging to begin with, and the bigger it gets, the more challenging it is," McConnell said. "Once you get to about $10 or $15 million, the success rate is very low."

With government projects, he said, there's "a political overlay" that further complicates things.

"If you start peeling back the cover on these projects," McConnell said, "you would see technical staff and management staff complaining about how often different stakeholders keep adding new requirements."

Yep, sounds a lot like L.A. Unified, where bureaucracy and politics are the main ingredients in every cup of soup. Just a few years ago, the district bought a $95-million automated payroll system that overpaid some teachers, underpaid others and provided endless laughs and finger-pointing, along with lawsuits.

And now, as if the botched iPad debacle weren't enough of a distraction for several hundred thousand students, teachers and parents, we've got the MiSiS Crisis, in which the teachers' union is blasting the district for underplaying problems with its new computerized approach to student tracking, My Integrated Student Information System.

The district is firing back at the union, which it says is exaggerating the problem. But in this war zone, kids are likely to be the casualties.

Although it might eventually offer lots of benefits for everyone involved, MiSiS was so inexcusably screwed up early on that the district told teachers to stop using it temporarily. At one point, frustrated Roosevelt High students walked out in protest.

Did no one at L.A. Unified consider more testing before the full rollout?

I was getting screaming emails from teachers, counselors and parents complaining about students who got no class assignments, or were assigned to the wrong classes, or got packed into overstuffed rooms.

And one from a student at a South Bay high school.

"Students have the same three classes back to back. Some kids don't even have a schedule at all. And most of us had to wait weeks to get into the right classes and change our programs," she wrote, saying that as many as 60 kids were shoved into rooms "like sardines."

"This is problematic because we are losing instruction time and it gave us piles of work to catch up on and is setting us up for failure."

Let's hope not. Let's hope this student fights through the distractions, graduates with honors and grows up to show all the misfits and incompetents how to do contracts, and how to run a school district.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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