Taking Risks and Breaking Routines With a California IT Project

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“We knew that the status quo would possibly provide a costly, unsatisfactory project that failed everyone,” says the secretary of the California Government Operations Agency.

When Marybel Batjer took her current leadership post in California’s state government, she’d been away from the public sector for about eight years.

“Much had changed,” Batjer said, recalling her impressions after Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her in 2013 as secretary of the California Government Operations Agency.

“I could feel that public servants were a bit defeated, a bit run down and not feeling that their new ideas would matter much,” she added, during remarks made Wednesday at the annual Code for America Summit, which is underway this week in Oakland, California.

California’s Government Operations Agency oversees state operations such as procurement, information technology, and human resources. A priority Batjer said she established early in her tenure at the agency was to find new ways of making sense of government processes, so that those processes could add value to the policies they are designed to implement.

This, in her view, demands an atmosphere that allows for more risk than might typically be tolerated in the public sector. “Government thrives on routine,” Batjer said. “Workers know that they can’t get criticized for doing something the way it’s always been done and approved.”

“Managers are able to follow a known path,” she added. “Unfortunately, that environment usually doesn’t leave space for new ideas.”

Batjer offered an example on Wednesday of a project where the state broke from a routine.

This involved upgrading a troubled information technology system the state uses for child welfare services. “The IT system we have for child welfare is functional, just barely, and not at a level that the federal government requires,” Batjer said. “And it hasn’t been since 1993.”

It was about a year ago, she said, when the state was preparing to go public with the seventh version of a request for proposals to upgrade the system.

The RFP had been labored over for three years, Batjer noted.

“Those familiar with it,” she said, “knew that, at best, that RFP would produce a project that would likely be late, and may be over budget and even well-written specs would produce something outdated by the time it was delivered, if we were lucky, five years from now.”

Around this time, Will Lightbourne, director of the California Department of Social Services, contacted Code for America and asked the group to review the RFP. Code for America is a nonprofit group that works to improve the use of technology in government.

The review, according to Batjer, prompted the nonprofit to swiftly request a meeting with state officials. Code for America staff suggested California use an “agile” approach for procuring the upgraded IT system, breaking the request for proposals into multiple, smaller pieces.

A possible advantage with this type of approach is that the state would be able to deploy parts of the new technology in less time than it would take to create a single, larger final product. It also provided a path to troubleshoot and improve chunks of the technology as they were released, rather than tackling the same process with the entire IT system all at once.

In the weeks that followed, Batjer said she and the rest of the team working on the project were able to secure support from the governor’s office, state legislators, federal authorities, and county-level welfare directors to move forward with the agile approach.

“The right people were willing to take the risk,” she explained, “because we knew that the status quo would possibly provide a costly, unsatisfactory project that failed everyone.”

Batjer said she recently heard from a state employee who’d worked on the IT project for almost 10 years, who said the state was on track to have a product in-hand in less than a year. “After a decade of working on it that had produced nothing,” Batjer said. “How awesome is that?”

Bill Lucia is a reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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