There are many reasons government has failed to rise to the occasion. One is undoubtedly that, through a combination of benign neglect and anti-government malice, the technology used by state and federal agencies has been left to rot.
Unemployment insurance websites across the country are crashing just when those out of work need them most. New Jersey, for example, has begged for volunteers still fluent in COBOL, a nearly extinct, 60-year-old programming language that powers its benefits system. COBOL is used to at least partially run unemployment insurance programs in all but 16 states, according to National Employment Law Project analyst Michele Evermore.
In some states, such as New York, laid-off workers have been told they must fax in documentation. In other states, workers can file claims online — unless, of course, their only way to get online is via smartphone. Some unemployment websites aren’t “mobile-enabled,” a significant issue when about a quarter of Americans don’t own a desktop or laptop, and libraries are closed. Infuriatingly, Illinois’s website — like those in some other states — is shut down for hours every day.
Perhaps the hamsters running the system need a break?
In some states, such as Florida, desperate Americans are standing in crowded lines to retrieve paper copies of forms necessary to get critical safety-net benefits. This is, of course, despite government stay-at-home orders.
Somehow, other countries’ governments are able to directly deposit relief funds into their citizens’ bank accounts within days. Here in the United States, we cheer when similar measures take the federal government “only” weeks to execute — and that’s just for the first round of payments. Resignedly, we accept that some households could wait months. It feels like an achievement if the Small Business Administration’s loan portal simply stops crashing.
For the world’s most advanced economy, these primitive technical difficulties should be embarrassing. Yet they were foreseeable. In some ways, the story of failing, funding-starved government IT is the story of all the nation’s political economy problems.
When things seem to work adequately enough with the bare minimum of maintenance, politicians and taxpayers see little reason to spend on overhauling the system. That is, government can be a victim of its own success.
“The IRS runs a successful filing season each year, so people ask, ‘Why spend more money on IT?’ ” says John Koskinen, a recent commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, whose creaky, 52-year-old software system is among the oldest in the federal government. “They don’t see the risk, or understand the risk.”
On the other hand, when government services do fail — as has happened on occasion at the IRS — that perversely can become justification for whacking budgets further. Especially among starve-the-beast types who see government dysfunction as an excuse for funding cuts, even if funding cuts caused that very dysfunction.
Even politicians who usually champion robust government spending might be unwilling to go to the mat for this particular cause. IT upgrades, after all, are expensive and take years to pay off — perhaps not until long after those appropriating the funds have left office.
IT improvements also compete for funding against much more compelling government services. Somehow, replacing decades-old mainframes doesn’t quite tug at the heartstrings as much as, say, cancer research and early-childhood education — both of which are funded through the same annual bill that includes appropriations for modernizing states’ unemployment insurance systems.
Public IT upgrades aren’t glamorous to fund or to perform, especially relative to the jobs that qualified programmers and engineers could probably get in the private sector, which pays better than government does. Plus, however unpopular tech companies may be right now, anti-Silicon-Valley rhetoric is nothing compared with the rabid, anti-government vitriol routinely spewed at civil servants.
In a country where “good government” has long been perceived as an oxymoron, perhaps it’s not surprising that we’ve been especially bad at funding and staffing the kinds of thankless services whose only purpose is to help government function reliably. Now, in a crisis, the rusty plumbing of government, held together during good times with duct tape and crossed fingers, is springing geyser-size leaks.
On the other side of this pandemic, let’s remember how we handicapped our government’s ability to respond to a crisis — and never do it again.