SACRAMENTO (CN) – The judicial branch’s administrative body was in the hot seat this week when members of the California Assembly’s Committee on Accountability grilled Director William Vickrey and his Chief Deputy Ron Overholt on a $1.3 billion court computer project that Chairman Hector De La Torre, a Democrat from Los Angeles, called “the most expensive IT project in state history.”
Legislators focused their questions on the ballooning cost of the project, developed by consulting firm Deloitte.
“It struck me that this whole project was originally estimated at $260 million and now it’s at $1.3 billion. Is that the cap? What happened?” said Assembly member Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto. “So many times in government we get going and the tax payers start to think that we’re not overseeing their money.”
But Overholt, from the Administrative Office of the Courts, called the figure “an appropriate amount for this project. It is what it should be to create a statewide system.”
The project, known as the Court Computer Management System, began in 2003 as an effort to link all 500 of the state’s trial courts, but has since encountered a multitude of problems with functionality and cost.
The hearing took place Wednesday before an audience of about 30 in the close, dark-paneled hearing room number 427 in the Capitol Building. Vickrey and Overholt faced their interlocutors beneath harshly bright lighting, as though on stage, while the public looked on in comparative shadow.
“It’s hard for me to be sympathetic to your budget concerns when you started at $260 million,” said Nathan Fletcher R-San Diego. “Maybe we would have more money to hire judges if the initial cost estimate had been met.”
He questioned Overholt on one of the committee’s primary goals, to establish a cap for the project’s cost as recommended in an April report published by the State Chief Information Officer. “Is $1.3 billion the absolute cap?” Fletcher asked. “If you can’t meet it, will you walk away? You won’t come back in January and say its $1.6 or $1.9 billion?”
“That’s the absolute cap,” Overholt answered. Vickrey admitted that the AOC still had not documented savings thought to come from CCMS, nor had the AOC done a cost-benefit analysis. But he claimed the computer project would increase efficiency in the courts.
Overholt said that in January, the AOC would have a better idea of the project’s efficiency.
Addressing AOC chairman Vickrey, legislator Fletcher said, “It would seem like you would be able to do that before you ask us for $1.3 billion. At least tell us how it will be efficient and why you need $1.3 billion.”
Questions were also raised about the AOC’s efforts to meet the other recommendations in the state Chief Information Officer’s report, including that the recommendation that the AOC should ensure that the superior courts from all of California’s 58 counties be committed to using the system, improve project management and create a more detailed deployment plan.
The target date for the completion of CCMS was set to be next month, but the AOC recently pushed that date back to April 2011.
“It’s in the final stages of development,” said Overholt. “Obviously we’ve been delayed several months from our goal because we were notified by our vendor [Deloitte] that there are still issues with the code.” Overholt said it may be 2016 before CCMS is deployed in all the state courts.
The state information office’s project management director Adrian Farley defended the AOC, saying it had been receptive to his office’s recommendations. But, he said, it is “too early in the process” for the AOC to implement them all.
Assembly member Marty Block, D-San Diego, questioned him on the technical problems experienced by many courts that are using the current version of CCMS. “I’ve had people you use the system everyday come to me and say it makes their jobs much more difficult and there are impediments to doing their daily work,” said Block.
“The technology can be implemented,” said Farley. He likened the newest version of CCMS, known as V-4, to Windows 2007, and the current V-3 to Windows 2003. “The new version will function better than the current one,” he said. “There will be enhancements in usability.”
Vickrey asked the committee to be excused before members of the audience, including judges and court workers, rose to comment.
“My court is very disenchanted with CCMS,” said Sacramento Superior Presiding Judge Steve White. “I do not overstate the antipathy my judges have for it. It’s been woefully misbegotten and badly managed by the AOC and Deloitte. It has not worked for us and we have a very strong IT department.”
Fresno Superior Judge Kent Hamlin spoke in a similar vein. “It made everybody’s work more complicated and it has doubled our staff,” he said . “I feel like we’re paying Deloitte to learn how to build it.”
Assembly member De La Torre acknowledged the judges’ issues with Deloitte’s management, but said it was too late to alter course. “Obviously in terms of Deloitte,” he said, “that decision has been made.”
Libby Sanchez of the San Diego Court Employees Association elicited the most laughter of the morning with her comments. “I object to Mr. Farley’s Windows analogy about CCMS,” she said. “It’s more like a family trading in their perfectly reliable car for a Bentley with no wheels and no engine.”