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Goal 4: Build digital government more quickly and more effectively

The COVID-19 pandemic forced our government to adapt rapidly and rethink how we serve 40 million Californians. We had to adapt our older technology and implement new solutions to help people quickly, sometimes in just days.

In our work, we found departments hungry to use technology to dramatically improve service delivery and outcomes. But they felt that technology is not doing as much as it should. We heard from leaders and program teams about how it is difficult to make such improvements quickly and effectively.

Part of how we will build digital government faster and more effectively is addressed by our goal of making common technology easy to access, use, share and reuse across government. But common technology is only part of the answer.

The situation can be more complicated when it comes to the technology that supports core public services.

Some of the foundations of our government are large complex programs. These programs usually involve older technology infrastructure (“legacy” technology, often running on state mainframes). Achieving our vision requires successful, replicable approaches so these kinds of programs can quickly and efficiently meet people’s continually changing needs.

Technological improvements are typically scoped and implemented as “projects.” There are defined requirements, budgets and schedules pre-specified years before completion. The process to approve these projects can take years. Technology investments should receive approvals and oversight. But there is growing recognition across agencies, departments, legislative staff and the Legislative Analyst’s Office that we need pathways to get to better faster.

Last, there is a common desire for learning from our collective experiences using technology to improve public services across the state. Even though the particulars may vary, every technology investment is an opportunity to improve our knowledge about how to build digital government. Building digital government more quickly, and more effectively requires making success easy to copy, and making failures easy to learn from.

Challenges to focus our work ahead together

Challenge 4.1: How can we better balance oversight and planning with speed and delivery?

Why this matters:

  • Most stakeholders want faster progress, and recognize that investments will continue to need thoughtful planning, investment approval and oversight, but too many initiatives take years before changes or improvements are delivered.
  • The existing approval and oversight process is designed for large, fully planned technology “projects,” providing assurance to the Legislature and Department of Finance, but the experience of this process is cumbersome and slow to all stakeholders.
  • An alternative pathway is needed to allow faster progress and learning for teams, programs and departments who have demonstrated success.
  • Unclear and inconsistently applied approval processes, standards and requirements highlight a need for clarification, better coaching and consistency to set investments up to succeed regardless of who’s building or approving them.

Challenge 4.2: How might we develop the information needed to prioritize statewide technology investments to improve services, realize savings and reduce risk?

Why this matters:

  • The Legislature and Department of Finance need greater transparency to feel confident that we are appropriately investing and building useful technology at both the service and statewide enterprise level.
  • A model focused on projects has left no room to identify or support statewide common infrastructure or shared services that would provide compound benefits for multiple projects.

Challenge 4.3: How might we better modernize legacy infrastructure to meet our goal of continuous, timely improvement?

Why this matters:

  • Much of the state’s critical IT infrastructure and tools were created years or even decades ago. While in many cases the underlying systems are stable, newer technology added to these systems is often complex to manage, difficult to change and does not scale to meet demand.
  • The state has few successful models for continuously updating legacy infrastructure. But the default approach of replacing legacy systems wholesale (a “big bang”) doesn’t work either, with a high risk of failure and increased cost, complexity and time to deliver.
  • Many programs face large, complex problems like operational data exchange. But the state has yet to embrace fully and decisively successful public and private sector approaches, like small-scale interventions, solving immediate, practical problems one by one as part of a long-term strategy. What is needed to successfully and repeatedly solve problems like this?

Challenge 4.4: How can we stop re-learning the same lessons? How can we speed progress by institutionalizing learning?

Why this matters:

  • The state has a widespread, urgent need for consistent documentation (e.g. “playbooks”), but creating and maintaining effective, useful documentation is rarely prioritized, funded or assigned to staff with appropriate training.
  • Technology leaders clearly expressed the need for projects to document and apply lessons from each others’ successes and failures.
  • Critical systems rely on the outstanding work of long-term government employees who are nearing retirement. Where systems rely heavily on vendors, there is a need to actually transfer knowledge to the state.

Challenge 4.5: What are the needs for long-term harmonization of statewide infrastructure, and how can they be met?

Why this matters:

  • The problems unique to our state government involve scale and the intersection of policy, programs, operations and technology. Delivering on our vision requires that programs and data interoperate with each other, but this also requires understanding trade-offs and long-term planning.
  • To date, attempts to address this have not been adequate. How can we make continuous progress as well as decide what should be state-level infrastructure and then implement that infrastructure?