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California state workers: The root of all evil?


THE SACRAMENTO BEE. FEBRUARY 25, 2013.  Our state worker columns about government IT prompted more than the usual number of angry emails and phone calls the last couple weeks. The first column zeroed in on Controller John Chiang's decision to ax the MyCalPays payroll system. The second considered a broader question: Why is tech such a huge problem for the state?

Here are the most common criticisms and our responses:

There you go again, blaming state workers.

Actually, the columns point out the complex interplay of the technology culture, labor politics and the motives of elected officials and managers, the private sector's for-profit drive and government's inherent resistance to change.

We don't think state workers are better or worse than people in the private sector. Inefficiency exists in any large organization, public or private.

Why the bad news all the time? What do you have against state workers?

We expect things to work as intended. When the state spends years of staff time and tens of millions of dollars on something that doesn't work, it's news.

Many of the stories, columns and blog items we write spring from tips by state employees. Without those conscientious public servants, much of what's wrong with state government would go unnoticed.

The problem is with the contractors. Fix that and you'll fix the problem.

Both columns point out that private contracts can exponentially run up the price of IT projects. But the state sometimes has a role in this. Cost overruns can arise from changes ordered to a system by either the contracting department or by a new law that ripples into how a computer program should work.

That's not to excuse firms that exploit the system. But government officials have oversight. They are spending public dollars. They're ultimately responsible, particularly given the state's long trail of technology busts.

If state workers did all the work, it would be done right. Why don't you write about that?

Cite one example from the last 10 years and we'll consider it. We've asked around. There could be good lessons to learn from a successful project executed entirely by government employees.

These contracts are outsourced by management to private sector firms - often over the objection of SEIU that internal IT state workers are cheaper and better qualified to do the work.

It's true that IT firms can be like baseball managers who move from one losing team to another. The State Worker has written about this in the past. We will again.

Whether they are cheaper isn't clear-cut. It depends on how you count the cost and whether the procurement system functions as it should. Ideally, IT contractors are a date. Permanent state workers are like a marriage.

An IT consultant can bill four times or more what the state pays its employees for IT services. By that measure, consultants cost more -- especially when they stick around longer than their contracts originally envision.

But permanent state workers can earn salary and benefits for a lifetime. And some projects are so complex that the state doesn't have an in-house talent pool from which to draw for the work. So matching up state salaries with contractors' fees isn't really a good comparison.