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Improve state computer system

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The state government’s first IBM mainframe was installed in 1963. Since then, the computer system relied upon to store and share information and serve the public has strained to stay current. In a high-tech world in which yesterday’s computer is tomorrow’s relic, changes are needed to provide more emphasis on information technology through legislation proposed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

"The costs associated with permanently or even temporarily losing capability or data are nearly impossible to calculate but would certainly be immense," amounting to "catastrophic failure," State Auditor Marion Higa warned in a report two years ago.

The system is used in paying benefits, issuing licenses and permits, and collecting revenues such as taxes.

An already dysfunctional information technology (IT) system has worsened in recent years with the state’s failure to respond to the rapid expansion and dispersion of technology, the audit found.

Higa blamed problems on the lack of priority and leadership by former Gov. Linda Lingle when, in 2004, she assigned her state comptroller, Russ K. Saito, at his request, as the state’s chief information officer on top of his other duties as director of the Department of Accounting and General Services. Higa chided that in order to be effective, the CIO should have been full-time, reporting directly to the governor and vigilantly presiding over a committee of representatives from each of the state’s 15 departments. That didn’t happen, limiting benefits for the state and increasing the risk of waste and inefficiency.

Saito responded then that a full-time position of chief information officer "is not necessary." Instead, he said, the problems were caused by the system’s budget reduction of $1 million in the 2009 fiscal year.

Now heeding Higa’s advice, Abercrombie has called for a restoration of that expenditure — a relatively small amount next to other state costs — and a full-time job of chief information officer, reporting directly to him. Such a move "will save taxpayers millions of dollars and improve the capacity of public workers and the private sector to accelerate services and business activity," the governor said last week in distributing his proposed budget.

It is not likely to be a money-maker in the short run, at least directly. But the savings should come over a longer period by preventing, for example, emergencies caused by downed computers.

Honolulu’s city government claims to have demonstrated cost savings by centralizing information technology management while avoiding catastrophic events. The city "was able to save millions of taxpayer dollars and deploy numerous technologies that improved productivity and public safety through an enterprise-wide, centralized model," Gordon J. Bruce, the city’s chief information officer, told state senators this month.

If efficiencies gained on the city scale could be applied on a statewide scale — guiding smart IT use by cutting down on paperwork, avoiding redundancies and streamlining services for consumers — they would go a long way in propelling Hawaii’s bureaucracy into the 21st century.

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