It's 1994 all over again in California.

A messy scandal left California's IT governance structure in shambles. The state's Department of Information Technology (DOIT) shut down last year, largely for its role in a controversial software license agreement with Oracle Corp. Nobody knows what the state will do; and everybody is wondering how to fill the vacuum.

The current situation is strikingly similar to the failed implementation of a new DMV database system nine years ago, which cost California as much as $51 million and triggered widespread scrutiny of the state's ability to build and manage IT systems. Following the DMV system's failure, then-Gov. Pete Wilson convened the Task Force on Government Technology Policy and Procurement to determine which parts of California's IT machine were broken and make recommendations for fixing them.

"California is in the midst of an IT crisis where the dangers of not changing are greater than the dangers of changing," the task force wrote in its September 1994 report.

Those words ring just as true today. California is operating without a central IT agency, which is responsible for articulating a statewide strategic technology vision, overseeing agency IT projects and approving agency IT expenditures.

Pessimists would say the state is in dire straits. Optimists might contend that California's latest IT disaster puts the state in the right place at exactly the right time. DOIT's closing may have created temporary IT-management turmoil in California, but it also gives the state an opportunity to implement some new ideas, potentially making California a test tube for redefining the role of state CIOs and creating a new model of IT governance for other states to follow.

As California's policy-makers ponder their next move, they sit on the cusp of an emerging debate over how much power a state CIO and centralized IT agency should wield.

Getting the Balance Right

The rationale for rigid centralized control of IT projects and purchasing held that IT is important enough to merit a Cabinet-level presence in states, and such a presence cultivates an environment in which CIOs can implement enterprise-wide technology changes.

The wisdom of that approach is increasingly questioned. A growing argument is that new Internet-based technologies and a changing political landscape within states -- where agencies are gaining power -- create the need for a more collaborative approach to IT management.

"This debate over centralized versus decentralized or strong versus weak is really coming to the fore," said Sharon Dawes, director of the University at Albany's Center for Technology in Government. "Neither extreme model works very well. Complete decentralization gives you no economies of scale and no way to build a common, robust infrastructure you can afford to support -- and we know that has problems.

"Complete centralization forces all decisions that should be made at various levels of authority -- or at various points in the system based on where the knowledge lies -- to a single point, and that doesn't work so well either," she said. "Everybody is struggling to find the right middle ground."

In large part, the debate focuses on where to centralize IT resources, because some aspects -- network infrastructure, electronic signatures, payment processing, IT work force investments, adopting technology standards -- lend themselves to that approach, Dawes said.

"Those things need a central point of view; everybody benefits from having a standardized, well-understood infrastructure and way of doing certain things," she said. On the other hand, agencies themselves possess business and programmatic knowledge unique to their missions.

"What's really needed is to connect those two areas of strength in a way that makes sense and delivers value for the state as a whole," she said.

No More Enterprise

Because of the Internet's

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor