As the birthplace of true giants of the technology industry like Google, Amazon and Microsoft, America is easily viewed as a global technological powerhouse. This idea makes further sense when looking at the technology utilized by the U.S. military, with robotic systems and hypersonic missiles being just a few examples of American technological might. With this in mind, I was in shock when I stumbled upon a Twitter thread by Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers highlighting just how appallingly outdated the state unemployment system is.
It turns out that for all the technological might America possesses, government departments at the federal and state levels continue to utilize outdated systems. Such systems — usually known as legacy systems — are cumbersome to operate, expensive to maintain and prone to hacking.
The Government Accountability Office conducted a study on systems utilized by federal departments in 2019 and found that among the 10 most critical legacy systems in need of modernization, the Department of Homeland Security’s system had 168 critical risk vulnerabilities that hackers could exploit. Further, a system used by the Department of Education was found to run on Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL) — an outdated programming language with dwindling availability of skilled technicians that can support it — and systems used by the Department of Treasury and Department of Human and Health Services were found to be around 50 years old.
The news of Russian hackers breaching federal government systems in 2020 might have raised alarm and shock at the time, but looking at the state of government technology, perhaps it was inevitable.
Besides the obvious security risks and massive expenses accrued in the act of maintaining legacy systems — the federal government spent about 80% of their $90 billion budget for technology in the 2019 fiscal year to maintain these systems — outdated technology causes great inconvenience as well.
Why has the government spent so much on maintaining these outdated systems? For starters, there are vast systemic hurdles that prevent changes from taking shape. The sheer scope of modernization projects proves to be inhibitory. For instance, the U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services planned to spend $500 billion to convert nearly 100 paper forms into digital forms, yet in 2015 — about 10 years since the plans were put into action — they had spent $1 billion to convert only one single form online. Such digitization and technological issues saw the agency commit several blips, like sending over 5,000 green cards bearing faulty information in 2014 or duplicate green cards — as many as five for a single individual — between March and May 2016.
Meanwhile, political gridlock also factors into the lack of progress made in adapting to changing times, with disagreements on passing legislation that can fund such technological overhaul proving detrimental.
This brings us back to the situation in Wisconsin. Evers’ thread on Twitter highlighted that the state unemployment system utilizes COBOL — like some of the outdated federal systems — and listed specific inconveniences for those who have to work with the outdated system. These include a lack of email support, document uploads, automated changes and other basic features we take for granted when we use our personal computer systems.
Rising unemployment due to COVID-19 exposed the cracks in the government technological arsenal by adding strain on the ailing system when it might previously have been ignored. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development processed more unemployment claims using the outdated system in the nine months since the pandemic took over than from 2016 to 2019 combined. The issues caused by the system consequently left freshly unemployed Wisconsinites in a state of confusion, with some waiting months on their unemployment claims.
Efforts had been made to modernize the system in the past, but came to no avail. In 2007, then-Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration pulled the plug on a project to overhaul the computer system when it began falling behind schedule and looked likely to exceed its $24 million budget. Now, the new plan proposed by Evers is estimated to cost $90 million over the next 10 years to modernize the unemployment system, finally accomplishing change that leaders across the aisle failed to over the years. Yet, the Republican-controlled State Legislature is at an impasse. The Republican leadership shifted blame onto Evers and the agency, calling on the governor to “take ownership of the problems” and suggesting that the backlog of claims was down to departmental mismanagement.
A fact check by Politifact reveals that Evers cannot unilaterally “take ownership” of the problem. The full funds available to him for unilateral action simply do not cover the cost and legislative action is necessary. The legislature would need to allocate funds biennially for the project to reach completion as planned.
It is, therefore, imperative that the state Legislature come to an agreement sooner rather than later. While compromise has been notoriously hard to achieve recently, as the mask mandate situation and COVID-19 relief legislation have illustrated, as the outdated technology is having a real and negative effect on their constituents. Further action should also be taken at a federal level to address the issues pertinent today. As long as the status quo exists and systemic hurdles stand too tall, government technology will remain stuck in the past. Action is, therefore, necessary and imperative across all levels of government to address this and get back in touch with the times.
Anupras is a Senior Staff Writer and a sophomore studying Computer Science and journalism. Do you agree that government technology should be adapted to meet the needs of today? Send all comments to email@example.com.