States Struggle with Legacy IT Systems
In late March and early April, states saw their unemployment systems buckling under the sheer force of the number of people filing claims, StateScoop reports.
On April 4, Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey noted that his office was focusing on ways to upgrade its COBOL-based system, which is 40 years old.
“Given the legacy systems, we should add a page [to their online call for health professionals] for COBOL computer skills, because that’s what we're dealing with,” Murphy said in a video address, according to FCW. “We have systems that are 40-plus years old. There will be lot of post-mortems, and one of them on our list will be how the heck did we get here when we literally needed COBOL programmers."
Florida’s unemployment system “crashed under the weight of hundreds of thousands of applications,” according to FCW, adding that the “state initially urged applicants to use an out-of-support version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser before switching to paper applications.”
Private sector vendors are helping states respond. IBM announced it is offering free COBOL training for programmers across the country looking to help the states maintain their systems, OneZero reports.
New York state partnered with Deloitte, Google and Verizon to launch “a new unemployment website backed by 60 new servers, 1,000 new staff members on the phones, and a new callback feature for people who don’t get through on their own,” The Verge reports.
How did states end up here? Shark notes that the common refrains he hears from local governments are, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” “Just one more year,” and “The workarounds are working, right?”
In many cases, states may have a modern-looking user interface that is sitting on top of a decades-old system cobbled together over many years with parts and operations that have not been properly documented.
How to Modernize Aging IT Systems Now and for the Future
While no one could have anticipated the crush of requests that hit unemployment systems, the experience of states over the past month shows that something like this could happen again, Shark says.
“Governments, have to, if they are critical to our existence — and they are — they have to modernize,” Shark says. “If they don’t, shame on them.” Residents are counting on unemployment benefits and other critical government services to put food on their tables and get access to healthcare, and those services cannot be interrupted or delayed because of old technology, he says.
In the immediate, states and counties need to ensure their unemployment systems and public health IT systems are working as efficiently as possible so they can serve as lifelines for residents, according to Shark.
Shark estimates 20 percent of small cities and counties should not have their own IT systems anymore and should instead use shared IT services in regional arrangements, adding that “it makes no sense to have the incredible duplication. They can barely keep up with the necessary security fixes.”
A shared services model would lead to fewer points of failure and enable governments to better defend their networks. They could use the cloud for storage and have better disaster recovery and continuity of operations. Pooling resources could also lead to better economies of scale and cost savings, Shark notes.