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State of California websites still in the Dark Ages

In an era when data is steadily moving to the Internet and the cloud, the sad truth is that State of California websites are too often inadequate and archaic. Information should be easy to find on state websites. It’s not. Californians should be able to fill out forms online to be processed by the state. Too often, they can’t. Given that California is the most populous state and the home of Silicon Valley, you might think that state websites would be state-of-the-art, filled with easily accessible information, and easy to use. But the opposite is mostly true.

Perhaps you are better at web searching than I. But I cannot easily find on the Secretary of State website, a breakdown of registered voters by party or how many parties have ballot status. Yes, the information is there. But it is not easily accessible. It needs to be.

Or say you want to start a corporation in California. You’ll probably do some hunting around until you find the information. But you can’t do it online. You must print out the PDF, fill it out, mail it, and then wait. But in Utah, you can do it all online, and get a response within two days. Plus the link to do so can easily be found off the main menu at the homepage of Utah.gov. Some might say, well, Utah is much smaller and thus has less information to put online. True, but it also has fewer people available to build the websites. Surely California, with all the technical and creative expertise available in Silicon Valley, should be able to have intuitive, user friendly websites like Utah has. Instead, too many of them have a clunky feel to them and look like the technology hasn’t much changed since the 1990’s. And it probably hasn’t.

The poster child for this dysfunction is the Cal-Access and Cal-Voters databases at the Secretary of State. They’ve been down for weeks. That’s weeks in which important information has not been available. Cal-Access contains campaign contribution and lobbying information. Cal-Voters is even more crucial. It helps to verify new voter registrations and signatures on ballot initiatives. The Secretary of State’s staff says initiative signatures are being processed manually within a couple of hours. Considering that initiatives can have hundreds of thousands of signatures, it seems unlikely they could be processed that fast.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen says they are trying to upgrade their “ancient” systems but that budget constraints are hampering them. But it is difficult to understand how mission-critical databases could be down for so long. I am a database programmer and sometimes do work on ancient systems. Guess what, they can be fixed and repaired too. Maybe Cal-Access has roots in COBOL from 40 years ago. Okay then, find a COBOL team. They’re out there. Such catastrophic failures are generally not acceptable in private business. Either the system would be fixed or people might well be fired and new teams brought in. For two major systems to crash and stay down for three weeks indicates to me that something very serious has gone badly wrong and no one really knows how to fix it. No doubt they will eventually fix it. But this is indicative of how inadequate California websites are.

The Pew Center on the States recently ranked state election websites and said California was one of twelve states that need improvement. This dismal score was based on content, lookup tools, and usability. California can and must do better than its current embarrassingly inadequate websites.

(crossposted from IVN)

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