State CIOs lament the high cost of old systems

Larry Singer, former CIO of Georgia, led a panel of state IT officials at Federal Sources Inc.'s 9th annual State of the States conference in Washington this week on the topic of 'What's out there for industry?'

Singer, who resigned as Georgia CIO late last year, said he recently accepted a job with Sun Microsystems Inc.

When he arrived in Georgia in July 2000 to head up the Georgia Technology Authority, long-time state official and agriculture commissioner Tommy Irwin had a few words of wisdom for him.

'Larry, people here aren't going to like you,' Irwin said. 'You talk funny, you spent time at Harvard, and we don't like carpetbaggers. And we never had to account for IT money to the legislature before.'

Singer described his struggle to understand how Georgia was spending more than $1 billion each year on IT, much of it for embedded systems that don't show up as line items in the state budget. For example, Georgia's child support system costs $19 million a year to 'keep it from crapping out,' Singer said. The 16-year-old system uses a database written in Total, an obsolete database language.

'We have hundreds of those systems,' Singer said. 'They're not accounted for because they are buried in the program budget. Is there an opportunity for new IT? Of course. Is it going to show up in the budget? Of course not.'

Texas CIO Carolyn Purcell said Texas had a similar problem with legacy systems that require a lot of maintenance. 'We've got systems in Texas that are old enough to vote and drink whiskey,' she said.

Singer said technology seems to have gone out of fashion in the past few years. 'E-gov is my least favorite word,' he said. 'Back in the '90s, e-anything was hot. Everybody wanted government to use technology the way business did. But the idea of being a technology governor has come and gone except for the people who really understand government, and understand that technology is woven into what government does, which is mostly transactions.'

Thom Rubel, program director of the National Governors' Association, said he used to see governors 'rushing to be on NGA's IT task force. No more. I recently heard one governor say, 'Technology is not going to be a priority this year.' But technology is embedded in everything government does.'

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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