IT Modernization

COVID-19 pandemic underscores need to invest in federal IT systems

digital modernization (Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock.com) 

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven home a point that workforce experts and agency leaders have been making for years: the government needs to invest more in modernizing its legacy IT systems.

During the same week that the Department of Labor reported 1.3 million additional workers filed for unemployment, employment and government workforce experts told the House Budget Committee that existing IT systems had hamstrung the government’s ability to provide citizens with much-needed support in light of the devastating economic and public health consequences of COVID-19. 

“The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the challenging state of government IT systems at every level, but this is not a new problem,” National Academy of Public Administration CEO Teresa Gerton said at the July 15 hearing.

She pointed out that the Government Accountability Office had named the Internal Revenue Services’ Individual Master File taxpayer data and refund system and Department of Veterans Affairs' benefits claims delivery system in its 2016 audit of the government’s oldest IT systems.

Four years later, both agencies faced backlash for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with IT systems one part of the problem.

VA workers reported constant system crashes when processing claims, leading to a spike in the claims processing backlog, while the IRS has faced criticism for its perceived slowness in sending out stimulus payments to Americans as part of the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

Almost a month before President Donald Trump acknowledged COVID-19 as a pandemic, the IRS had asked for $300 million to update its IT infrastructure.

Rebecca Dixon, the executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said that overburdened unemployment insurance programs was another glaring example of the failure to invest in IT systems.

Many state and federal employment insurance IT systems still run on legacy system programs like COBOL, a fact that Rep. Joseph Morelle (D-N.Y.) called “criminal.”

“Entire online systems crashed. States had difficulty reprogramming their systems to provide expanded benefits,” Dixon testified. “In some states that took up to a month and a half to establish the online application process for the new pandemic unemployment assistance.”

She added that while modernization “was not a panacea,” the federal government should coordinate more with state governments to address and alleviate the burden on IT systems.

“Create a unit devoted to advising states on how to modernize their IT infrastructure, review contractor agreements, audit contractors where necessary, and require states to document contractor performance,” Dixon said. “A federal task force [should be created] to evaluate purpose performance and recommend reforms, including compliance with civil rights laws.”

About the Author

Lia Russell is a staff writer and associate editor at FCW covering the federal workforce. Before joining FCW, she worked as a freelance labor reporter in San Francisco for outlets such SF Weekly, The American Prospect and The Baffler. Russell graduated with a bachelor's degree from Bard College.

Contact Lia at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LiaOffLeash.


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