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Back in 2012, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing installed Houdini, a $640,000 computer system designed to automate the filing of complaints. In November, 2013, Jon Ortiz of the Sacramento Bee reported that Houdini was failing to deliver improved efficiency and the DFEH “has seen a decline in the speed and quality of its work.” DFEH boss Phyllis Cheng told Ortiz that Houdini was “challenging” but that the state agency had turned its business around. As it turns out, that was something of a stretch.
Adam Ashton of the Bee now reports that Houdini, despite $98,000 in modifications, has been “a five-year headache,” and remains “riddled with problems,” according to state workers who told the reporter Houdini “simply does not support the level of service previously provided by DFEH.” Ashton found that Houdini “shuts down often, at least once a week in November,” leaving employees to document cases on Microsoft Excel worksheets, which do not work with Houdini.
The DFEH director who picked Houdini resigned in early 2015, but new boss Kevin Kish stuck with the program. Now Kish wants to replace Houdini with Salesforce, a program already used by other agencies, giving “some assurance” it will work as intended. Taxpayers have grounds to be skeptical.
From 1994 to 2013, as Jon Ortiz noted, “the state government spent $985 million on seven computer projects that were either terminated or suspended. In one case, the state paid $1 billion in federal penalties because it took eight years to install an automated child-support enforcement system.” This happened, the state auditor reported, “because CalTech does not always hold projects accountable.” That should be no surprise, because the California Department of Technology serves as watchdog and consultant for many of those government projects. That is a slick trick worthy of Houdini.
Meanwhile, don’t forget that Covered California, the state’s wholly owned subsidiary of Obamacare, shelled out $454 million on a computer system that failed massively, leading to “widespread consumer misery,” as health reporter Emily Bazar put it. Given the technology problems, the state’s free spending, high-tax governor Jerry Brown might hold off on that satellite launch.