Opinion: NJ’s ‘moonshot,’ the perfect chance to renovate our outdated IT infrastructure

Lee Keough | August 3, 2021 | Opinion
The pandemic made the shortcomings of New Jersey’s IT infrastructure all too clear. The feds’ American Rescue Plan gives us the funds to rectify this long-standing problem
Lee Keough

With special-interest groups pitching the Murphy administration on how to spend the state’s billions in federal rescue aid, I have a suggestion. Find a way to pay for a “moonshot” program that addresses the state’s woeful IT infrastructure.

State officials used the surprise infusion of $10 billion in cash for the $46 billion 2022 budget, addressing long-standing and well-known issues — stifling, high-interest debt; underfunded state-pension program; and school aid. Now they have another $4.2 billion on deck from the American Rescue Plan (plus another $2.2 billion slated for municipalities and counties), a large portion of which has yet to be allocated. Gov. Phil Murphy has invited the many New Jersey special-interest groups to pitch their ideas.

My suggestion would not just benefit one sector of the population, it would deal with a deep-rooted problem that impacts all New Jerseyans. And it is one that will require a very large investment to rectify.

Emergencies have a way of exposing weaknesses in a system; in that regard, the COVID-19 pandemic certainly delivered. The poster child for the problem — which negatively affected hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans during the epidemic — was the poor performance of the state labor department’s unemployment IT system.

Residents seeking unemployment relief in 2020 encountered a system that was completely overwhelmed. New Jerseyans often had to wait months, sometimes up to a year, to obtain the money that was due them. This contributed to long lines at food banks, residents unable to pay basic bills such as housing and utilities and desperate pleas for help on Facebook and Reddit forums.

The issue: The state’s unemployment portal was unable to handle the volume of requests. The initial proposed solution was to call special help lines. But these too were continuously blocked due to the same volume. And even those who were lucky enough to get through to an agent often found themselves still blocked because the system wasn’t flexible enough to handle even the slightest out-of-the-ordinary or complicated issue. Those “problem cases” included working out of state or working on contract or irregularly. Equally problematic: Those who were laid off, returned to work, only to be laid off again. In other words, basic issues that should have been anticipated.

Not equipped to deal with the problems

What’s more, callers had no way of knowing that agents weren’t equipped to deal with the actual problems. They could only fill out a form that was put in a huge queue for a special programmer to address individually. That’s because the labor department’s database is written in COBOL, a rigid 1970s-era programming language that can handle millions of records well but requires a COBOL programmer to manipulate that data in order to deliver results. Although the state is correct when it says COBOL is still used by many banks and big organizations, these companies have invested in additional software that can handle complex problems without human intervention.

Making it even worse, COBOL is no longer taught in school, as modern IT implementations use more flexible languages. For that reason, COBOL programmers are in short supply and demand the very top of the pay scale. Thus, the state was forced to ask retired COBOL programmers to return to help with the backlog — no doubt at a premium.

But that wasn’t the only problem exposed by the pandemic. The vaccination scheduling system turned out to be a non-starter. When grants were announced offering financial assistance to small businesses, the state Economic Development Authority’s website crashed.

I’m confident that these are only the most conspicuous issues. I’m skeptical of claims that the state’s IT security is in fine shape, given the fact that so many large corporations — that monitor and continuously invest in IT — have been hit by cyberattacks. And with 565 municipalities and 21 counties in the state, it’s likely many are very much behind the times.

This is a serious issue that has been decades in the making. With so many special interests vying for attention, it’s easy for officials to kick the can down the road. That’s why it takes a windfall to really address the problem.

Thankfully, state officials are aware of the situation. The 2022 budget includes more than $48 million in IT investments. And it also calls for the Office of Information Technology to prepare a report detailing state government’s most critical IT needs, to be delivered by Oct. 1.

I just hope the state thinks big. It’s not often that New Jersey gets this kind of windfall. The effort should also include municipalities and counties — possibly by providing a standard framework that all political entities need to follow in order to deal with the state.

Let’s just say that without a major investment in IT, it’s hard to call yourself an “innovation economy.”

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