Information technology for Washington government costs nearly $1.4 billion a year for taxpayers. That’s quite an outlay, yet a new state performance audit finds the state’s central IT agency has unhappy customers.
The 47-page audit report, issued Monday by state Auditor Pat McCarthy, cites responses from 13 agencies served by WaTech, the state’s IT agency. The audit did not reveal which customers complained. But several agencies were dissatisfied; the 13 agencies make up about 70 percent of WaTech’s monthly revenue.
The audit states that a number of agencies took their concerns about “customer service, the cost and quality of services, and pricing transparency” to the auditor, Governor’s Office and Legislature. WaTech, which was created in 2015 as a re-consolidation of IT agencies, also overshot its budget by $10 million last year.
The budget problems were partly traced to costs that are out of WaTech’s control. One factor is the sunk costs of a state data center and related office complex built for about $255 million during the Gregoire administration.
Another cost factor is the continued use of an aging and obsolete mainframe computer system, the audit says.
WaTech staffers argue their agency is already following seven of eight recommendations for fixing problems found by the performance audit. Spokesman Matthew Bailey said WaTech’s own surveys of 62 customers showed a higher level of satisfaction.
On Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that the chief state information officer he hired in 2013, Michael Cockrill, is leaving for a job in the private sector. Inslee praised some of Cockrill's work to replace outdated systems, and aides said the departure was unrelated to the audit and in the works for a few weeks.
But the vacancy in leadership gives Inslee and WaTech a chance to rethink how this agency can serve its customer base more cheaply and effectively. Inslee should do more than just put a new person in charge.
The creation of WaTech followed a major agency restructuring in 2011 that split up the former state Department of Information Services. This earlier split created Consolidated Technology Services to deliver data services for client agencies and an Office of the Chief Information Officer to oversee planning and policies. OCIO and CTS were relinked as Washington Technology Services, or WaTech, in 2015.
State Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, tried to stop former Gov. Chris Gregoire from going ahead in 2009 to build the data center, because cloud computing could make such large data centers obsolete. Gregoire did ask her DIS director to give the project a second look, but she ultimately let it go forward.
Today, half of the data halls are unneeded and no business wants to lease them. Believing the audit is a new “teachable moment,” Carlyle said the Legislature and governor still need to take stronger oversight of state IT needs and to use technology to deliver services more cheaply.
Agencies buying services from WaTech should like what they get. The audit shows too many think they pay too much and get too little. This needs fixing.