Monday, May 21, 2012

Stem Cell Agency Hires Tech Chief to Solve a Myriad of Problems

In a move that was long overdue, the $3 billion California stem cell agency last week hired a director of information technology to straighten out key problems ranging from its grants management system to how it handles its website.

The new hire comes as the CIRM governing board faces the results of its first-ever performance audit, which is markedly critical of how the agency handles its information. Half of the audit's 20 highest priority recommendations for improvement focus on information deficiencies, including critical information necessary for CIRM executives to determine the agency's performance.

Solving those problems will fall on the shoulders of Bill Gimbel, who is no stranger to CIRM. He has been working with the agency as an information technology advisor since 2010 through a contract with Infonetica, Inc., of Pleasanton, Ca., according to CIRM spokesman Kevin McCormack.  Gimbel is now the first staff person in a chief technology position at CIRM since October 2007, when about 25 percent of CIRM employees left.

Bill Gimbel
A graduate of MIT, Gimbel, who will be paid $180,000 annually, has a broad range of experience in computer technology and software dating back to 1992. According to his Linkedin web site, he was most recently director of IT at Infonetica. He lists himself as owner of aptReader, an app for reference books. He has also worked for LearningExpress and Scholastic, Inc.

The stem cell agency has been wrestling with information technology issues for years. The critical grants management system has been an issue at least since 2007, when directors were told its costs would not exceed $757,000. No figures for the total spent since then have been made public by CIRM, which is attempting to build a custom system, but the amount clearly and easily surpasses the 2007 estimate, based on some of the outside consulting costs. Although the agency hopes to resolve many of the problems by the end of this calendar year, the grant system was the target of considerable attention by Moss Adams, the firm that prepared the performance audit.

Over the years, CIRM directors have received intermittent, sketchy CIRM staff reports about the grants management system, but the Moss Adams discussion is the most comprehensive.

Among other things, the Moss Adams report said in bureaucratically delicate language,
 "Integration of website content management has not been an integral part of the GMS (grants management system) development process, which could result in suboptimal operational efficiency and effectiveness.

"Grants management system development is effectively managed at a tactical level, but it lacks dedicated, strategic governance and oversight, which has resulted in an elongated development process and requirements conflicts."
Moss Adams said,
"The new grants management system intellectual property module, currently under development, does not include provisions to address commercialization activity."
The performance audit additionally said,
"CIRM board members and senior management do not receive regularly updated, enterprise-level performance information. The ability to evaluate performance against strategic goals is critical to effective leadership and program monitoring, evaluation, and reporting. CIRM does not currently have a formal performance reporting program."
Moss Adams continued on other information technology topics:
"Data and document access are inefficient as a result of CIRM operating without a document management system.....In most cases, CIRM staff cannot access information without human interface. Information is stored in multiple locations, which are not linked or indexed."
The audit said that the agency has tried to solve its information problems without a plan. 
 "CIRM’s information system needs have been met by a variety of tools, including in-house developed applications, off-the-shelf applications, databases, and spreadsheets, most of which are not integrated," the audit stated.
One of the effects of all this is much wasted time when CIRM's tiny staff tries to extract information from the hodge-podge of systems. It is time that cannot be spared as the workload increases in the next few years, as it is certain to do. 

CIRM's 29-member board is scheduled to consider the performance audit at its meeting this Thursday. 

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