- Special Projects
Congratulations, Mr. Ige. You snagged a first-class seat to the technology time-warp.
I wanted to call you on my rotary phone to personally salute you, but I’m still waiting for my canvas trousers to dry in the wind.
The year? 2014. Somewhere in a windowless Honolulu office, five clerks process Hawaii’s $130 million payroll on a biweekly basis. Like underpaid artisans, they perform their work primarily by hand, with only the help of a COBOL application running on a 40-year-old VAX computer that’s barely kept alive with a mishmash of parts purchased on eBay. The clerks check and recheck their calculations, pencilling department totals into paper ledgers.
That’s roughly 80,000 biweekly state paychecks brought to you by the quaint power of elbow grease.
When it comes to the state’s annual financial reporting, only the abacus remains undusted.
Using FAMIS, Hawaii’s 40-year-old financial accounting platform, two lonely state employees (it was six, but four have since quit) convert the state’s cash accounting method over to accrual — a tedious process that leaves the two employees feeling famished and wishing they were Amish — hence, possibly, the FAMIS name.
In 2012, this FAMIS transferring process took so long it wasn’t completed until after the fiscal year began, thus delaying the state’s ability to issue new bonds, and likely, via some kind of unexplainable Kutcher-esque butterfly effect, causing the UH Rainbow Warriors to lose almost all of their football games.
The tech stagnance is far-reaching, and it affects the poor substantially more than it does the privileged.
In some states, for example, the process of applying for food stamps is handled entirely online. In Hawaii, recipients are required to fill out an application and have a face-to-face interview with a state employee.
“If you live in Honolulu, that’s really not too much of a problem,” says Kelvin Taketa, president of the Hawaii Community Foundation. “If you live in Hana, it’s a big deal. Then, you have to drive three hours each way to Wailuku to go to the state office to meet with these people.”
And that’s just the beginning of Hawaii’s long-standing tech infrastructure problems.
By almost all accounts, including Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s own admission, the state is still 30 to 40 years behind the technological curve, with a heavy reliance on paper, insecure and decentralized data centers, and a nightmarish penchant for long lines and dried out ink pens that only a trip to the local DMV can quench.
According to Hawaii Business Magazine, the average state spends 3 percent of its budget on IT. The feds spend 10 percent. Hawaii spends a measly 1.4 percent, which leaves the state struggling to preserve an already-defunct set of systems, while other states continue to improve and excel.
But things could get better, especially if Ige throws a few more Bitcoins at the problem.
According to the Transform Hawaii Government website, “increasing [the 1.4%] investment to 2.5 percent during the next 10 years, the State of Hawaii can dramatically transform its IT systems to better serve residents, To put that number in perspective, industry best practice calls for spending 3 to 5 percent of the state’s annual budget.”
Also according to Transform Hawaii, there are 743 inefficient, paper-based IT systems operated by the state. The VAX computer in the Hawaii payroll offices is unfortunately not alone.
Sanjeev “Sonny” Bhagowalia, who became Hawaii’s first CIO in 2011 and was appointed CIO of the U.S. Treasury Department last month, pinpointed 220 broad business functions provided by the state. He calculated that roughly 70 percent of those functions were citizen-facing, and only 5 percent had yet to be made available online.
As for those other 95 percent of services: what are they, and how can the newly elected Ige help to make them more efficient? Citizens and lawmakers are still waiting in line to find out.
During his tenure, Sonny worked hard to modernize the state.
Hawaii’s Open Data Portal is a shining example of Sonny’s efforts. But the state IT staff is still a humble 746 employees, dealing with 49,000 state employees and multiple public and private websites and applications.
Abercrombie described Sonny’s appointment as Hawaii “entering the 21st century.” Sonny’s departure could in turn be considered the “return of Turing.”
It’s a daunting task, after all, to modernize a metaphorical moth ball, especially with such a small and dispersed tech staff, many of whom are likely relegated to answering inane IT questions with retorts like, “Have you tried turning it off and on again?”
“There were some good strides made,” Ige says of Sonny’s tenure, “but even when we passed legislation to create the chief information officer position, I knew that there needed to be a restructuring and redefinition of the IT positions in state government. For the most part, the job descriptions, pay levels, sequencing of promotions and other kinds of things for IT professionals in state government are so antiquated and off-scale that I knew … we would not make progress. And none of that has occurred in state government.”
Sonny’s quick return flight to D.C. leaves a number of his goals vastly unrealized, including a push to centralize and secure state data as well as an initiative to provide every resident 1 Gigabit Internet service by 2018.
Whether Ige, in conjunction with new CIO Keone Kali, will continue to pursue the goals Sonny set forth in 2011, we’ll soon find out.
Govtech recently named Ige one of the 13 “tech-savviest” state legislators in the nation. As an accomplished electrical engineer with a long legislative career catering toward tech initiatives, Ige is poised to help Hawaii advance in tech, both in the public and the private sector.
As a lawmaker, Ige initiated the creation of the Hawaii Strategic Development Corporation (HSDC), an organization that has funded local venture capital firms like Blue Startups and Mbloom and catalyzed the burgeoning tech scene in the Kakaako area.
The program is “small by Silicon Valley standards,” Ige admitted, “but we probably have about 100 to 150 startups and $80 million of initial startup and seed capital investments made in the state now.”
Ige also co-authored the Hawaii Telecommunications and Information Industries Act, which established the state information network and created the Hawaii Information Network Corporation.
As the former principal engineer at Pihana Pacific (now DRFortress), a company which established Hawaii’s first and most successful carrier-neutral data center, Ige will hopefully work to renovate some of Hawaii’s horrendously debilitated data centers.
“Horrendously debilitated” is honestly an understatement.
According to the 2013 Gartner report for the Office of Information Management and Technology, critical state data is stored at “insecure” and “inadequate” locations, most of which lack redundant power, have inadequate cooling systems and antiquated fire suppression, and are poorly maintained and monitored.
The centers are “messy, disorganized and difficult to secure due to co-location with people.”
Many of the centers have no procedures for data recovery in the case of an emergency.
A majority of the data centers lack generators, security measures, and regular monitoring.
Some centers are located in tiny closets, accessible by anyone in the office. Most of the centers are “in or near downtown Honolulu near the shoreline … on the first floor or basements of standard office buildings.”
According to Gary Weller, president of Mana Ikaika Inc, disruptions to state services could potentially result in $1 million per day losses for Hawaii’s economy.
It’s obvious, then, that the chances of a natural disaster or a server implosion are plausible enough that the state should guard against them proactively, especially with Hawaii’s seemingly newfound liking for hurricanes and tropical storms.
While fears grow about the federal government tracking us too keenly, it seems we should be equally wary of the state’s near-inability to track us at all.
But will we be able to stomach the bill? And is Ige ready for the paper-laden challenge? I won’t hold out for 1 Gig internet, alas, but I am hoping for substantial change and improved infrastructure under Ige’s leadership.
So, again, congratulations, Mr. Ige.
As an engineer and as the governor of Hawaii, you have a lot of important work to do. And as a state employee, you have a lot of paperwork to do. Here’s to hoping the latter doesn’t completely drown out the former.