Funeral for a Tech System

     A half-billion dollars is a lot to waste. But so is eight million.
     The California courts’ governing council voted last week to spend that additional sum salvaging pieces from a 10-year computer project that turned into a financial train wreck
     The wreckage is in the form of computer code, millions and millions of lines of code, more than it takes to run the biggest jetliner on earth, code that the state paid $520 million to accumulate.
     “Our court has struggled since inception with the quality of the product, its design deficits, and overall system performance,” said Presiding Judge Laurie Earl in Sacramento. “Our court’s experiences have left us with a jaundiced view.”
     The council had the choice to end the madness, the choice to say, no, no more money.
     That is what a legislative leader had told Judge James Herman a week earlier when the judge was testifying in the Assembly. “Using the parent language, we’re taking a little time out here,” said Gil Cedillo who chairs a budget subcommittee.
     A week after that hearing, the council considered a motion by Judge David Rosenberg to not spend “a penny more” on the computer project.
     That motion was thumped, 17-1 against.
     Instead the council voted to back a motion by Judge Herman to spend another $8 million.
     A big part of that money is intended for “leveraging” of the software.
     But no trial court — not one — has adopted the final software, CCMS V4. The reasons include design and performance problems in the earlier version, the fact that it eats up staff time, and the millions that it costs to install.
     What does the bureaucracy want to “leverage” out of that? Is it the design problems or the inefficiency or the ability to burn millions?
     Another big chunk of the $8.6 million goes to “terminate” the final V4 version of the software. But V4 never got started. It is not installed in any trial court.
     The only element of the software that might seem valuable is the e-filing element, that allows lawyers to file documents over the Internet.
     But big California courts have gone right around V4 to set up e-filing through private contractors. The contractors install e-filing for basically nothing in exchange for the ability to charge the lawyers for the delivery.
     That means there is nothing left to save.
     On the other hand, that $8.6 million would come in very handy for trial courts fighting savage budget cuts. Last year, San Francisco’s courts had to fight the central administrators for a $2.5 million loan while the San Joaquin courts basically had to beg for $2 million in bailout funds.
     I was talking with my aunt about all this on my walk home at the end of the week. And she asked me how the courts got into this fix.
     Partly it was the times, I told her.
     Software and the Internet were relatively new to bureaucracies 10 years ago.
     The officials involved were inexperienced with technology and bought the false promise that e-filing would allow them to fire staff. The state budget was flush and it was easy enough to look around and find an expensive consultant and say, “you do it.”
     There is a second element, which is that through some ineluctable law of government, bureaucrats constantly seek to expand their zones of power. The administrators tried to use the new technology to exert greater control over the trial judges.
     There is a third element, which is that the administrators and members of the council appear to have been seduced by the techno jargon used by the consultants. It seemed to hypnotize the council members and make them helpless in spending more and more money on the system. Even on the way to its funeral.

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