Reports this week have put MyTurn, California’s $50 million COVID-19 scheduling website, on the long list of IT and technology blunders by government. The headline in the Sacramento Bee says it all, “California spent $50 million for a COVID vaccine scheduling website. It flopped.”
The state’s ongoing technological woes should be fodder for Saturday Night Live or stand-up comedy: The home of Silicon Valley can’t reproduce a website for scheduling appointments? MyTurn’s technological problems read like the same tired stereotypes suffered by other government agencies: user-experience issues, incorrect scheduling, and little compatibility with other state health care providers, pharmacies, and even grocery stores.
Despite only 27 percent of Californians using MyTurn to book a vaccine appointment, the shortcomings of the new website did not seem to stop residents from booking vaccines. I think the bar is so low when it comes to technology, and state government that MyTurn is ironically a success story.
Why? Look at the more glaring issues faced by California state agencies and technology.
California’s Economic Development Department (EDD) has shined in the statewide media spotlight for the past year, with the unemployment agency still struggling to process more than one million unemployment backlog claims.
More confounding is that massive consulting firm Deloitte has come under criticism for the tens of millions of dollars it has received to update EDD’s IT and call centers. Why? EDD failed to answer 73 million calls between September 2020 and March 2021. Yes, you read that correctly: 73 million.
Rounding out California’s COVID-19 technological trifecta is the state health department. The California Department of Public Health suffered a technological glitch in the summer of 2020 when COVID-19 reporting numbers became artificially inflated due to a “processing issue,” causing Newsom and his administration to walk back positive news about COVID-19 projections in July and August 2020.
Technological issues aren’t unfortunately new in Sacramento. In 2013, the state canceled upgrades to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and state payroll system after spending a combined $400 million on both projects. The DMV was cut short halfway through the project because little progress was made.
If we go in the way back machine, we can see that California has been updating FI$CAL, the Financial Information System of California, since 2005. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Office, the 15-year price tag is at $1.1 billion currently.
Other states also fared poorly with technology during COVID-19, with state agencies in New York, Maine, New Jersey, and Florida also dealing with their own technological failings.
One only need look back on the botched federal Obamacare website to know that IT problems are plaguing the federal government, as well.
A 2015 Brookings Institute piece on the government and IT calculated that 70 percent of Congress’ $75.6 billion IT budget was spent on maintaining current systems. The Standish Group, a European advisory research IT firm, found that large government projects costing over $6 million dollars had a 13 percent success rate in a 2015 study. So, California’s MyTurn user rate, 27 percent, at $50 million is a steal.
The Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center Perspective on Public Purpose blog also looked at government IT problems, arguing that lengthy and complicated contract bidding processes, lack of talent, and a broken federal acquisition and procurement process all contribute to lackluster government IT performance.
I cannot argue that the MyTurn website is a case-study in good government. The glitches are many and well-documented. But it’s sadly a step in the right direction from previous technology fiascos in California.
If anything, it is worth remembering that when progressives clamor for more government and the takeover of whole industries, we can remember that a half-built website with many glitches might be the best technology project the state of California has done in decades.
Evan Harris is the media relations and outreach manager at PRI.