Eye on the States: Playing amateur sleuth in the Oracle-Calif. investigation

Tom Davies

What were they thinking?

That's the question of the day as details emerge of California's controversial purchase of Oracle Corp.'s database software. On the surface there are many unanswered questions. Multiple investigations are under way to get to the bottom of just what happened.

If you act quickly, you, too, can jump on the investigation bandwagon. Here are my top 10 questions for the investigators.

1. Was it a good deal? Asked another way: Did California overpay, and, if so, by how much? I don't know whether you could determine this to everyone's satisfaction. There's a reasonable chance that even if the state did a detailed cost-benefit analysis before agreeing to the contract, the outcome may not have been any different.

2. Did anyone bother to call other states and check out the going rate for Oracle database licenses? Oracle must have approached other states with a similar enterprise license proposal. Could the states have banded together to get an even better deal?

3. Was the enterprise license agreement an example of commercial best practices? At first blush, the deal has many attractive qualities. Aggregating purchasing power, looking at purchases over a several years and obtaining bulk rates for technical support are just a few. Despite the controversy, you've got to admit the business drivers were compelling.

4. Why can't all procurements be done this quickly? Reportedly, from start to finish, the purchase took about three weeks. That's amazing, especially since most states can't get a request for proposal written in three weeks, let alone ink a deal. And that still left time for executive branch agencies ? the departments of Finance and General Services and the governor's office ? to review the contract and ask questions.

5. Why do so many IT controversies happen in California? Can its management of information technology really be that much worse than in other states? While other states have problems, they somehow avoid stumbling year after year. For some reason, it's never quite that straightforward or easy in California.

6. Does anyone really believe the California Multiple Award Schedule is the problem? There are master purchasing agreements in almost all states. Surely, if the other states can figure out how to use such arrangements without abusing them, California can too.

7. What's with giving campaign donations to state employees? Technology companies have been contributing to political campaigns since the early days of the industry. There are well-established and legitimate ways of doing so, but giving donations directly to state employees is not one.

8. Is this becoming a case of piling on? Admittedly, it's hard to feel sympathetic for the parties involved. But there are so many investigations under way, it's hard to figure out what the real agenda is.

9. What happened to common sense? Apparently no one ever heard if you can't live with reading about it in the headlines the next day, don't do it ? even if it doesn't break any rules. Did anyone really believe you could award a $95 million sole-source contract and no one would notice?

10. What exactly will abolishing the Department of Information Technology accomplish, other than force out the chief information officer? Does anyone believe the underlying cause of the controversy is the department? How does having the legislature approve all software contracts of more than $1.5 million improve anything? Micromanaging the executive branch is not a substitute for good IT management and sound business judgment.

OK, those are my questions. Get yours ready. You never know when the investigators will call.

Thomas Davies is senior vice president at Current Analysis Inc. in Sterling, Va. He can be reached at tdavies@currentanalysis.com.

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