Santana: County IT Collapse Should Prompt a Reboot, Not Just a New Chief

County of Orange

Christina Koslosky, who recently quit as the county's IT director, reacts to a question about how much has been spent on the county's largest IT contract at the May 24, 2016 supervisors' meeting.

After more than a decade of being systematically squeezed for campaign contributions by county supervisors – and being gamed by one IT contractor after another – the half-eaten carcass of the county’s IT systems publicly beached itself last week – with the quiet resignation of Chief Information Officer Christina Koslosky.

One former contractor has already been taken to court and the current vendor probably isn’t far behind. Costs are up while performance and reliability are both down. All of the county’s independently elected finance officials (Auditor-Controller, Treasurer-Tax Collector, Assessor, and Clerk-Recorder) have already openly revolted against county administration of their IT.

Koslosky is the fourth IT director – after Dan Hatton, Satish Ajmani and Mahesh Patel – I’ve seen leave in quiet shame over the last decade –usually after years of cost overruns, poor performance and constant re-scoping of costly outsourced contracts.

And independently elected officials also have themselves fueled their own series of IT scandals, which county supervisors have had to inherit because they oversee the budget.

Former Auditor-Controller David Sundstrom also left his own IT mess when he left for Sonoma County and former Assessor Webster Guillory also had his own decade-long legacy of IT cost overruns and performance issues before he resigned in disgrace over unrelated election fraud charges.

Now let’s not kid ourselves, there’s one constant here: campaign contributions.

And the ensuing fuzzy contracts they seem to trigger, where no one is ever held accountable and hundreds of millions are spent with little to no effort by any public official to explain in any understandable manner what is being achieved at such great costs.

Now, keep in mind this is a so-called conservative county board of supervisors that has collectively spent the last decade pounding away on things like employee pensions, arguing it’s a rising cost that has to be understood, tamed.

Yet just watch this video, where Koslosky is asked a simple question earlier this month at a public meeting: How much have we spent on the county’s largest IT contract?

The answer is about $55 million.

Yet Koslosky’s inabilty to answer that straightforward question is a poster-child moment for the failed IT policies that have been implemented over the years – leaving us all incredibly vulnerable in an area where we need the strongest and smartest people.

And when taxpayers have a question, it doesn’t matter if the name is Hatton, Ajmani, Patel or Koslosky, the answer is the same each time.

A blank stare…

The reaction from county supervisors is also the same, again and again.

Feigned indignation…

Collective shock and surprise that these public sector executives can’t make the patchwork of contracts they’ve assembled through political deals work.

Then there are the calls for reform.

Followed, of course, by a public admission of guilt that they don’t know what they’ve authorized and need to find out more.

I seem to remember former Supervisor Pat Bates having several of these public moments of clarity.

But then, as usual with government, there’s no public follow up.

Just private stalling, which protects status quo…

And nothing changes until the next blow up.

Now, lets not forget that IT is the backbone of virtually every government department.

And in Orange County, it’s breaking down more and more.

That means critical, and I mean critical, public safety services are going down.

One recent log of system disruptions found that in some cases, they go down for hours.

And while county supervisors will bristle at this, the truth is that this is the result of approaching outsourcing like a sport (which works great for campaigns), instead of a business tool (which works great for governing).

It’s also the result of not growing and nurturing a consistent and reliable IT team, one that can handle simple things like delivering emails and getting web browsers to work.

Now, I don’t think county supervisors are corrupt here – this isn’t an issue of quid-pro-quo campaign cash for IT contracts.

I wish it were that simple.

County supervisors have hired bad managers and not held corporate partners accountable along the way. They’ve kept authorizing more spending without asking detailed questions; and based on their questions in open session have never taken the time to really understand what the challenges facing the county really are when it comes to IT.

And in the midst of all this confusion and lack of information, they have allowed the campaign cash to cloud their judgment.

The entire RFP process for all these massive IT contracts was set up under highly questionable circumstances back around 2006 when supervisors first set up a committee to ostensibly review the very issues that continue to plague them a decade later.

The committee was set up by then supervisor, shortly thereafter, state senator and now congressional candidate, Lou Correa — after the scandal of the day when Hatton left in 2005 and there were issues with the Cerner Corp. on Health Care Agency software.

The committee never did anything.

Then another then-Supervisor and now State Senator Janet Nguyen took up the IT charge, working with the committee for a while before sunsetting it (with nothing resolved) and embarking the county on a new massive RFP for IT services.

That is the $138 million contract (actually authorized at $132 million and recently expanded by $6 million with another change order) that is blowing up now.

Instead of continuing to defend that process, supervisors should take advantage of this latest break to stop, rethink where they are and strategize about where they want to go.

This is the step they keep missing over the last decade.

We’ve seen what a campaign cash-infused IT approach looks like.

I’m certainly ready for a new approach.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that there were issues with Cerner Corp. and Social Services Agency software. The problems were with Health Care Agency software. We regret the error.