Terminated. It's a word that's rarely used in the world of government information technology, where projects can take on a life of their own and live forever, even if they are over budget, late on arrival or fail to operate as originally promised. But on Nov. 20, 1997, John Thomas Flynn, California's chief information officer, exercised his oversight authority and, for the first time in the state's history, terminated an IT project. The project was the Statewide Automated Child Support System (SACSS), the largest and most expensive state-run, single-unit information system in our nation's history.

Officially, the state and Lockheed Martin IMS, the project's chief contractor, mutually agreed to cancel the project after failing to reach terms on how to fix SACSS, which had been in trouble since its inception. A report issued by an independent vendor found some 1,400 problems plaguing SACSS. Less than a dozen counties out of 58 use the system after more than five years of work and expenditures of $100 million. Final costs could be as high as $345 million.

Behind the official explanation of contract conflicts with the vendor lie a number of troubling reasons contributing to SACSS' termination. They include a flawed federal program for automating child support throughout the 50 states; an antiquated procurement system; tensions between California's politically powerful counties and the state; lax project management and questionable oversight.

For California, the immediate concerns are getting SACSS on track again; agreeing with the federal government on child support deadlines; and correcting the flaws in the procurement and project management of large computer systems. More troubling, however, is the spiraling cost of, and diminishing return on, large-scale government computer projects in California and throughout the country.

In 1990, the number of child support cases in which collections were made was at a measly 20 percent. Today, after the federal and state government spent nearly $2.7 billion on automation, the collection rate remains at 20 percent, according to the General Accounting Office. Just how much longer Americans will accept such a poor return on their tax dollars for government technology projects remains to be seen.

Unrealistic Deadlines

SACSS began in 1992, when California's Dept. of Social Services (DSS) announced that the federal government had approved a $75.5 million contract for automation of the state's child support enforcement program. The contract was awarded to Lockheed Martin. At the time, DSS projected that the new system would eventually add as much as $11 million each month to the state's child support program, "more than paying for itself while collecting substantially more child support for California's children," said John Healy, interim director of DSS.

The decision to automate child support came from a federal mandate in 1988, which required that every state develop a single child support system. The feds agreed to pay an enhanced rate of 90 percent of the development costs if the project was completed by September 1995.

Most state officials point to the federal mandate, coupled with what they consider an unrealistic deadline, as a chief culprit in California's failure to build SACSS and why other states are also struggling with their automation efforts. "States all over the country are having problems with their child support systems because of federal laws imposing deadlines and penalties along with strict reporting requirements and unreasonable system transfers," said Flynn. "These prerequisites have tied the hands of states."

State Assemblywoman Elaine White Alquist, who chairs the California Assembly Information Technology Committee, also singled out federal requirements as a reason why SACSS failed. "The federal government has had an unrealistic mandate for this project," she said. "The additional requirement of having to use a system transferred from another state was also unrealistic. As a result, California didn't have any flexibility."

California's procurement system has also been repeatedly attacked as a villain in the SACSS case. Like most other states, California in the early 1990s procured