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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

California government’s technology drastically pales in comparison to that from Silicon Valley, but Gov. Gavin Newsom is betting $40.8 million and a new office will change that.

Even though California is home to innovative tech giants like Google and Apple, its government historically has used technology that can’t handle simple tasks—like accepting a credit card at the DMV, or in some cases, offering fully functioning websites. To combat this stark digital divide, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed the Office of Digital Innovation. Funding is tucked into the budget starting July 1.

Can a new office and $40.8 million fix a decades-long problem? That depends on who you ask. Newsom won enough legislative support to get the funding approved. But observers remain skeptical as to what the office can actually accomplish given entrenched bureaucracy. Assembly Majority Leader Ian Calderon, a Whittier Democrat, counts himself as one of Newsom’s supporters and said he wished the office was created a long time ago.

“We live in the tech capital of the world, yet we don’t have anybody driving the modernization of how we as government operate and provide services to the people we represent,” Calderon said.

Calderon is co-chair of the Legislature’s tech caucus. He said he remembers taking calls as a field representative for the Legislature in 2010 and helping a single mother who was having trouble navigating the Employment Development Department. She was unemployed and needed her unemployment benefits to pay bills and buy food for her children, he said. She finally called him to ask for help. The woman had spent hours on the phone trying to access her benefits.

“I just want us to be more effective and more efficient,” Calderon said. “When people are calling a state agency because they’re having an issue, they don’t have time to spend three hours on the phone.”

Newsom was outspoken about technology problems in California’s bureaucracy even before he was elected. He called for pushing democracy into the digital age with a book he co-authored in 2013: Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government. In an interview with Google, Newsom said, “California is on the leading and cutting edge of 1973.”

As an example, Newsom early this year pointed to the Department of Motor Vehicles’ inability to accept credit card payments in field offices.

Despite Newsom’s attention, the DMV will not be the first agency helped by the upcoming office, said Government Operations Agency Secretary Marybel Batjer. The Office of Digital Innovation will be housed under her agency since its mission will be to help Californians navigate a bureaucratic tangle of poorly performing websites.

“Our first and most important thing to do is begin to hire,” she said. The budget calls for 50 positions, and once filled, “we’ll begin investigating and learning from department agencies where the greatest need is, and we’ll set a path forward.”

Batjer said the DMV is “ripe” for innovation, and she mentioned California’s Health and Human Services Agency as another entity that could use a technological boost. The Department of Health Care Services, which is housed under the agency, has faced its own technological snafus, like making questionable Medi-Cal payments and denying Medi-Cal coverage to eligible Californians.

Batjer said the new office will be modeled after other government digital agencies, including the federal office 18F, which was created in 2013 after the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act. (That agency reportedly faces its own problems under the Trump Administration.) California’s office also will look at the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service. Both offices focus on user needs and take a start-up approach to tech.

Batjer said California’s office will complement the Department of Technology, which also is under Government Operations.

Amy Tong, the California Department of Technology director and state chief information officer, said the new office will be expected to bring innovative approaches to technology, honed in Silicon Valley, to state offices that are stuck in “legacy” mode and unable to figure out how to update.

For instance, the office might help state workers become more efficient by streamlining processes that take many steps into ones that only require a few.

Yet to truly succeed, some say state employees need to do more than become more efficient. They need to adopt a new attitude about technology.

“Nobody wants to take risks. Nobody wants to stick their neck out,” said former state Sen. Dean Florez about state technology decisions.

He said the job description for the new director is admirable, but he questions whether a large, bureaucratic system will actually be as willing to “break things”  as start-ups and tech gurus of Silicon Valley.

Florez said Newsom’s biggest challenge will be getting bureaucrats on board with a major tech overhaul.

“I think Newsom wants to get California to the cloud,” he said, a costly move. “It would be a big change for the state of California to forgo those legacy systems and move to things like the cloud.”

Still, the Newsom administration remains confident that this is the best next step.

“Gov. Newsom is committed to transforming the way citizens interact with their government for the better,” said spokesman Brian Ferguson in a written statement. “The goal of this new office is to tap into and grow the creativity, innovation and transparency that already exists elsewhere in our state to improve the way the executive branch approaches the delivery of technology and services to the public.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues