America’s Decades-Old IT Systems Need a Reboot
Why Federal IT Investments Will Help to Ensure Timely COVID-19 Relief
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the struggle at all levels of government to provide timely information, resources, benefits, and confidence to citizens in need. While the need to modernize information technology (IT) is not new, the pandemic has been a powerful accelerant, turning this chronic problem into an urgent need that demands action.
Emergency assistance programs across the board — but especially unemployment assistance — have been hampered by our outdated IT systems, leaving workers and families with delayed relief or no help at all.
That’s why at a recent hearing, House Budget Democrats examined how federal investments in tech, especially in light of the COVID-19 crisis, will help Americans access and receive services from a safe distance, and help state and local governments continue their work to serve, support, and protect families.
Failing to Invest in IT Systems Have Weakened Critical Agencies & Programs
Failing to prioritize and invest in updated or new technologies and solutions have left critical benefit programs, services, and infrastructure vulnerable to public health emergencies, economic shocks, natural disasters, and security threats. And now, outdated IT systems are worsening an already difficult situation as agencies are left overwhelmed and underprepared.
As Chairman Yarmuth said in his remarks during the hearing:
“Rash funding cuts over the past decade have prevented the IRS from modernizing its IT systems, deteriorating the agency’s ability to not only carry out its core function of tax collection and enforcement, but also needlessly prolonging the delivery of stimulus payments to workers and families during the coronavirus pandemic and recession.”
Unfortunately, the IRS is not alone in its inability to meet the needs of the American people during this time.
State unemployment offices were overwhelmed and unprepared for the influx of workers who needed help. When they needed COVID relief most, Americans experienced:
· Crashing websites
· Unanswered phone calls
· Confusion on how to check the status of their claim
· Delays in receiving desperately needed assistance
The truth is, even though Congress was able to pass relief efforts, our current IT infrastructure was not flexible or fast enough to distribute the provided resources and relief.
Jennifer Pahlka, co-founder of U.S. Digital Response, emphasized that policymakers must understand how their proposals are likely to be implemented in order to achieve the desired results:
“Policy and technology have to go together, they do go together, and we need to make policy with the implementation in mind.” — Jennifer Pahlka, co-founder of U.S. Digital Response
Rebecca Dixon, Executive Director of the National Employment Law Project, attributed these failings to our nation’s lack of investments in modernized tech:
“We have the system that we have invested in. So, we haven’t invested in it.” — Rebecca Dixon, Executive Director of the National Employment Law Project
It’s no wonder we’re experiencing technical difficulties. We cannot expect tech from 10 years ago to do today’s job. To make matters worse, because the federal government is falling short of the necessary tech investments and modernization , it is passing these acute problems on to state and local partners that distribute support to workers and families on behalf of the federal government.
Republicans Let Enhanced Unemployment Insurance Support Expire & It Could Take Weeks to Reprogram
House Democrats passed the Heroes Act months ago — and then Heroes 2.0 less than two weeks ago — to provide desperately needed fiscal relief to state and local governments and extend the $600 enhanced unemployment benefits through January 2021 for workers in need. This way, state UI systems could continue administering aid and hopefully shorten wait times since systems were already familiar with the program.
But instead, Republicans have refused to act, leaving working families, small businesses, and state and local governments without the critical support they need. And now, even if an agreement is reached to extend supplemental unemployment compensation, the lapse in support caused by Republicans’ inaction stands to put even more stress on states’ already overwhelmed and underequipped IT systems, will lead to additional delays.
During the hearing Ms. Dixon warned that states will not be able to make quick adjustments to their payment systems following an agreement to extend enhanced UI. “It would take states 2 to 3 weeks to get back up and reprogram,” she said.
The Time to Modernize America’s IT Systems Is Now
The federal government has a responsibility to invest in new, modern technology solutions to help citizens better access aid and services, allow agencies to complete their missions, help state and local governments administer federally financed programs, and spend taxpayer dollars more efficiently. This is even more important now as our nation struggles to recover from the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting recession.
Investing in IT modernization would not only help Americans better access services, it would be much more cost-effective than continuing to prop up obsolete systems. But for modernization to occur, discretionary funding levels must recognize and accommodate the need for up-front investments.
As Chairman Yarmuth emphasized in the hearing, “federal and state governments are in dire need of solutions and investments now. We cannot foster a successful recovery while relying on IT systems from the 1950s.”