me," he said. "Because a few people did walk up to me and tell me, 'You know that database redevelopment project you have, it's never going to work.' I think it's like a disgruntled employee or a staff person's opinion, plus you've got all the people that have already invested in the project, whether it be the vendors or staff, they're all telling you it will work."

Zolin said he tried for 18 months to save the project, partly because of the investment the state had already made, and partly because he kept hearing how the new technology would solve a lot of operational problems in the DMV's driver's license and vehicle registration records processing.

There's also no denying this sort of project takes on a life of its own after enough time passes -- if money keeps getting appropriated to the project -- nobody wants to kill it. The project's sheer weight and mass becomes a protective shell.

"In the reality of state government, it's tough to kill a project," Zolin said. "I know that after a career in public service. That's why I took 10 to 12 months developing the case, checking out every argument to save the project, and I felt at the time I killed the project, I was 100 percent justified. If you go back and read [accounts in the press], I was criticized for a lot of things, but nobody said the project would work and nobody criticized me for saying, 'This thing is a failure. Let's not spend good money after bad.'"

It's been 10 years since the ill-fated DMV project, and the aging IT system still hasn't been replaced. Clearly California is having budget trouble, but whispers from the Capitol intimate that nobody wants to touch a renewal project because memory of the spectacular flame out still lingers.

In With the New

Though such projects can be dangerous, several states, including Massachusetts, have embarked on campaigns to replace old systems before it's too late.

In early April, The Boston Globe ran a story titled Massachusetts' Scariest IT Project that explained the state's decision to replace its existing Medicaid Management Information System (MMIS), a 20-year-old Medicaid claims-processing system that was last upgraded in 1991.

Oversight of the replacement project was given to Louis Gutierrez, CIO of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS), who said he knows the task will be complex.

"When you look at the number of interfaces, the volume of business, the number of things that have to go right every day, and how you work your way through the organ transplant, you've got to be really careful with the complexity on these things," Gutierrez said, adding that the state hopes to finish the replacement by July 2006.

The existing system is fully depreciated, Gutierrez said, and though Massachusetts isn't thrilled to undertake a costly project -- the state is willing to spend upward of $70 million on the replacement -- it's not a matter of should it be done, it's a matter of when to do it.

"You ask yourself, 'How much longer do we continue patching the past, versus really setting the new foundation for the future?'" he said. "We felt that not doing it was just shifting the issue to the future. There's a kind of 'progressive entropy' that happens with large systems. They start out with some focus as to purpose, but after 20 years of patching, workarounds and change in the industry, you've got a situation that really needs radical attention."

He compared problems with the state's existing claims-processing system to similar problems in the private sector with health-care information systems, noting that a lot of health care these days runs on undercapitalized, very complicated application foundations.

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor