What’s going on with the Office of Information Technology Services?

That’s the question that comes to mind after reading Topeka Capital-Journal reporter Tim Carpenter’s story from last week encompassing billing disputes, federal penalties, stretched state employees and irritated legislators. Through it all, we see the need to run a tight ship, as free as possible from errors. With the state budget still on the mend, Kansas doesn’t need this kind of financial burden.

To recap, the state is seeing “budget problems in the executive branch’s central IT operation because of a billing dispute with the Legislature, a pending federal penalty for overcharging agencies for technology services and the bungled purchase of computer equipment,” Carpenter reported.

According to DeAngela Burns-Wallace, secretary of administration and chief technology officer, the problems have been brewing for years. They include an unpaid $3.8 million bill, along with other bills that could draw millions in federal penalties for overcharging. There’s also the $10 million in unused computer equipment that was recently donated to Kansas State. Ultimately, these costs and the uncertainty around them are making it more difficult for the agency to modernize and upgrade.

The problem is real, and the number of workers involved is large. Some 1,400 IT personnel are employed by the state. Without the necessary funding and direction in the department, Kansas could be at risk of losing invaluable technological know-how. Workers with IT skills are in high demand, and the state should be able to compete for them.

It’s difficult to disagree with Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Parker Republican. “I think we need a major shakeup with how we administer and how we have our IT services in the state of Kansas,” she said, according to Carpenter. “We have to step up and do something.”

The kind of problems being faced now didn’t happen overnight, and they weren’t caused by a single person in a single day. As we have written in the past, systemic issues can be the biggest and most challenging problems — the very design of agencies, contracts and other non-human elements can create incredibly daunting challenges years down the road. Clearly the state IT department, with more than a thousand employees and pressing needs from all sides, is a complex system.

That means it needs carefully considered, bipartisan, pragmatic solutions. The department’s billing practices should be understood, penalties should be avoided or promptly addressed, and overall management should be scrutinized. Ultimately, the Legislature could be on the hook for substantial payments to clear these obligations.

We need transparency and oversight of state IT practices, and we need it yesterday.