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Civic tech volunteers help states with legacy systems

As the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare vulnerabilities in state and local government IT, volunteer technologists came together to help state and local governments meet increased demand.

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They formed a nonprofit group, named U.S. Digital Response (USDR), and thousands of volunteer technologists signed up to work pro-bono within weeks, said CEO Raylene Yung, a recent fellow with the Tech Policy Hub at the Aspen Institute and former employee at Stripe and Facebook.

After Kansas contacted USDR for help with its failing unemployment application system, the group sent technologists to help the state shore up its legacy IT to handle the flood of requests from newly unemployed workers. The volunteers worked with the Kansas government to diagnose issues on the mainframe to so it could support higher traffic, said Alyssa Levitz, a USDR unemployment team lead. The team helped implement a content delivery network, and it was able to help reduce wait times and unblock the site within days.

So why have state and local governments faced massive IT problems with benefits delivery during the pandemic, to the extent that there was a space and need for nonprofit IT assistance?

Most states essentially have the same types of dated IT systems, and their IT departments are also generally under-resourced, said Mitchell Weiss, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and author of forthcoming book about public entrepreneurship and government, "We the Possibility."

These antiquated systems are also highly complex. IT infrastructure for benefits delivery mirrors the complicated laws and regulations that govern it, Levitz said. That intricacy makes the systems especially vulnerable to crashes.

Updating the fragile, mainframe-based system is an arduous process, and while the Kansas Department of Labor was accommodating changes in unemployment insurance made by Congress during the pandemic, it was also dealing with surges in new applications.

This pandemic isn't the first time that policy implementation has been made difficult by technology. Massive problems with the launch of the HealthCare.gov website during the Obama administration sparked movement in the civic technology space. It proved that technology is mission-critical, said Waldo Jaquith, a USDR volunteer, Beeck Center data and digital fellow, and former employee with 18F, a digital services office in the General Services Administration.

Even with the existence of better technology and a renewed focus on the issue, the federal set-up of government and the fractured delivery of benefits like unemployment via states are hurdles, Jaquith said. Although states can work with 18F, it can be difficult to bring them on board, for example.

The procurement and acquisition of government IT infrastructure is another obstacle. There aren't many people who have deep knowledge both about procurement and policy implementation in addition to technology use and development, Jaquith said.

"It's the perfect storm," he said. "Of course these projects fail. They're going to keep failing until those knowledge sets get aligned."

USDR open sources its work as much as possible, Yung said, making it possible for different governments to reuse templates or code. That reuse also scales in terms of the size of the projects being reused.

One project the nonprofit worked on was a county elections website template. Within months, about 10 different counties had adapted customized the template for their own needs, Yung said.

"That's a somewhat small example, but I think the potential is there for many other government systems," she said, especially as technology and communication tools are advancing.

The nonprofit is scaling and sustaining its current operations for next year, Yung said. It also started a rotational program where technologists are embedded in city agencies in New York for two-month periods. It recently announced a website template for public health agencies to use for COVID-19 vaccinations rollout.

Weiss hopes that the ultimate legacy of USDR is technologists and government officials with experience in technology "leading from the inside."

"USDR is in a position to show up and help a state or local government in a way that they have never seen before," Jaquith said.

A longer version of this article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Natalie Alms is a staff writer at FCW covering the federal workforce. She is a recent graduate of Wake Forest University and has written for the Salisbury (N.C.) Post. Connect with Natalie on Twitter at @AlmsNatalie.

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