businessman dragging old computer monitor (Ollyy/

Senators call for tech support for states’ legacy systems

States drowning under the flood of unemployment insurance claims may get some technical assistance from the federal government.

In an April 22 letter to congressional leaders, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and 15 Democratic colleagues asked that more funds be appropriated and some regulations changed so that federal IT innovators can help states whose legacy systems are failing under the demands created by unemployment sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

About a dozen state unemployment systems are using mainframe applications written in COBOL, a programming language developed in 1959. When those legacy systems need changes, agencies must rely on a dwindling number of COBOL programmers.

In Oregon, the system rejected claims and incorrectly told laid-off workers to start over. Florida has paid just 6% of unemployment claims filed in the last month, with the newly unemployed saying their online applications vanished when the computer refreshes, forcing them to start over. As a result, people filed multiple claims through different methods. New Jersey's governor even put out a call for COBOL programmers to come and help maintain the state’s legacy IT systems.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed state and local government benefits systems due to unprecedented numbers of applications and outdated systems," Wyden wrote in an April 22 letter. "More than 22 million Americans have filed unemployment claims in the past four weeks alone."

Wyden wants the next COVID-19 rescue package passed by Congress to include help for struggling states, with a $50 million emergency appropriation for the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) and $25 million to the Federal Citizen Services Fund to support the Technology Transformation Services (TTS) and its 18F innovation shop that often partners with federal agencies to help them build digital services.

Additionally, Wyden is looking to cut red tape that currently binds federal-state agreements, requiring months of negotiations before federal agencies can share resource and wants 18F to take a role in advising states on purchasing cloud services and permit state and local governments purchase services created by the federal government.

Ramping up USDS could be a heavy lift. The central USDS capacity has been decreasing rather than increasing over the past few years, as the White House and technology policy managers at the Office of Management and Budget look to push digital service capabilities out to federal agencies.

USDS was funded at $17 million in 2018 and dipped to $13 million in 2019 and $7 million in 2020, as the agency shifted in part to a reimbursable model to encourage agencies to develop native digital services. The Trump administration requested $7 million for USDS for fiscal year 2021.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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