CalPERS broke the mold to get systems modernized
California retirement agency interpreted a hard deadline as permission to do what was necessary. Then they did it.
At a glance
ORGANIZATION: California Public Employees’ Retirement System
PROJECT: Pension System Resumption (PSR) Recovery Plan
CHALLENGE: To integrate and consolidate 109 siloed systems to provide a coordinated, CalPERSwide benefits system.
SOLUTION: Create blended teams of stakeholders and IT personnel that could build a complex, multi-layered service-oriented architecture to tackle problems on the fly.
The management of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) knew it had a problem as early as 1995, when it tried to modernize IT systems that helped provide benefits to some 1.6 million public employees, retirees and their families. But it was only on the third try to fix it, at the end of 2009, that minds truly became focused.
“That was when we realized that we were at a make-or-break point with the project, and that we couldn’t go to the well anymore,” said Dale Jablonsky, CalPERS’ assistant executive officer. “We were told by our board that this was the last time, that it must work and that we must succeed with it.”
The basic problem was that the CalPERS infrastructure revolved around 109 separate, siloed and often antiquated IT systems that couldn’t coordinate service across the entire CalPERS’ environment. The first attempt at a solution would have modernized half of the legacy systems and backwards-integrated the rest. But it failed because it was impossible to integrate so many systems that, as Jablonsky put it, presented “multiple versions of the truth.”
In 2006, CalPERS launched the Pension System Resumption (PSR) project, but by the middle of 2009 it became obvious that this also was not working. The vendor on the project didn’t fully appreciate the complexities involved, Jablonsky said, plus the milestones that were set didn’t give it a chance to get that complexity into the PSR design.
“When [the vendor] tried to implement the plan it didn’t do a proper system design and every time it tried to correct something, something else broke,” he said. “In a rush to meet milestones and deadlines they had sacrificed the need for a truly elegant design.”
(Front row, from left: Anthony Suine, Karen Ruiz, Dale Jablonsky, Donna Lum, Christian Farland. Back row, from left: John Nichols, Jacquelyn Silver, Tacey Derenzy, Quoc Ha and Karen DeFrank.)
The final try at modernization, with a hard implementation date of Sept. 19, 2011, proved to be the catalyst because Jablonsky and his team took it as permission to do whatever was needed. So they dedicated more resources at the problems, creating “blended” project teams where all stakeholders sat at the table together, and where most things were dealt with on the fly, not through the traditional hierarchical decision-making that led to problems festering and creating major delays.
The CalPERS’ environment is now based on a well-designed service-oriented architecture (SOA) that Jablonsky said he believes will enable the new, integrated IT infrastructure to be maintained well into the future. He also put in place a governance structure that requires justification for all changes that are made, which is particularly useful when users start asking for things that would take processes back to the way they were used to.
“We tell them they really don’t want to go in that direction,” Jablonsky said. “We want to keep it pure.”
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