Sometime in the year 2002, if all goes well, a county welfare agency in California will throw a switch and end the final chapter in a long, convoluted and expensive plan to automate the management of welfare caseloads in the state. That switch will turn on a computer system, marking the completion of a mammoth project known as the Statewide Automated Welfare System (SAWS).

For nearly 25 years, California has pursued welfare automation in what must rank as the longest-running, incomplete computer project in state government. In the wake of SAWS, the state is littered with the wreckage of not one but several large-scale computer projects that have gone wrong. Evidence of what caused the wrecks is everywhere: Changes in federal funding requirements, vendor wars, state/county disagreements, a creaky procurement system, ineffective project management, inadequate cost estimates and faulty caseload projections.

As time for the project has lengthened, its purpose has continually flip-flopped from a county automation project to a statewide system and back again to a state/county partnership of sorts. "SAWS has been the ultimate zig-zag project," remarked California Assemblywoman Debra Bowen. "It has radically changed direction so often that it looks like the equipment could only be a Singer sewing machine."

Today, SAWS is in a crucial phase of its existence. Two major pieces of the project are to begin operation during 1998. Bids for the next two portions will be completed sometime this year as well. So far, the counties and the state are cautiously optimistic that they've got it right this time.

But potential trouble looms: Welfare reform has added complications to the automation requirements and has already forced delays in the latest SAWS schedule. Other large-scale automation projects for social services in California are under way as well, including statewide systems for child support, child welfare and electronic benefits transfer. Child support is in trouble, and all three projects are voracious -- swallowing resources, funds and legislative patience that SAWS could badly use.

Ironically, the key to SAWS' ultimate success or failure resides not with the counties, state data centers or the hundreds of MIS professionals working on the project; it resides with Gov. Pete Wilson. His understanding of and support for technology in the business of government could decide the fate of such mammoth projects as SAWS. "Unless you have leadership at the top that embraces the idea that technology is how we're going to get to where you need to be," warned Bowen, "you will continue to see some projects that work and some that don't."

Span Falls

California officials like to remind you just how big their state really is. They point out that the population is 45 percent larger than the next biggest state, the welfare caseload for the state exceeds the entire population of most states in the Union, and the caseload for Los Angeles County alone would rank as the sixth largest in the country, if it were a state.

By the same token, welfare automation in California is in a league of its own. You have to turn to the federal government to find projects of similar size, longevity, cost and dubious achievement. The Internal Revenue Service's multibillion dollar, multi-decade tax modernization program comes to mind. So does the Federal Aviation Administration's costly upgrade of its air-traffic control system.

Like SAWS, these two federal projects have also struggled through the years. Their outcome is still far from certain. IRS began its first attempt at modernization in the mid-1970s, when mainframes dominated computing, minicomputers were fast-charging upstarts and PCs were toys made in the garages of college nerds. That's when California's story of welfare automation begins as well. Initially, the Department of Social Services (DSS) tried to build an automated welfare system for counties with heavy caseloads, but the attempt never