Sen. Katie Fry Hester and Del. Michael Jackson: You Can’t Put Lipstick on This Pig

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No one really campaigns on updating aging state Information Technology infrastructure, for fairly obvious reasons. Technical maintenance of governmental operations usually can’t be readily seen or felt and isn’t exciting to talk about — so prioritizing it and getting people to care is a challenge. That is unless you are among the thousands of Marylanders who unexpectedly had to apply for unemployment insurance or other state managed benefits, and found the system slow, prone to crashing, and generally not up to modern standards.

Now is the time to address our state’s technical deficit. Having seen what has happened with unemployment and knowing the importance of technology in the age of COVID-19, we can’t afford not to. This article sets the stage and explains three key steps to eliminating Maryland’s technical deficit:

1) Understand the actual cost of maintaining our legacy systems

2) Set strategic goals for systematic and comprehensive modernization

3) Establish a mechanism to manage, fund and implement the plan

State Sen. Katie Fry Hester (D-Howard)

For context, the unprecedented demand on Maryland’s unemployment insurance (UI) delayed benefits to individuals who waited weeks and months for desperately needed help, with significant financial and emotional consequences. The newly launched BEACON UI benefit platform could not meet the demand of 660,000+ individual claims despite numerous tech fixes, debugging software and staggering log-in times to limit volume. Maryland Department of Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson mentioned last week that even while agency officials have sped up the existing modernization efforts, “the need for modernization has never been more apparent.”

Del. Michael Jackson (D-Prince George’s)

However, we cannot simply point a blaming finger at the Department of Labor (DoL). The finite capacity of the aging mainframes DoL and other departments use make it nearly impossible to scale up to meet dramatically increased or unexpected demand. Most of our state agencies are operating legacy IT systems, which frustrate Marylanders used to the agile online marketplaces of the private sector.

At the same time, maintaining these legacy IT systems come with an expensive price tag for operations and maintenance. Just last month, the Board of Public Works approved a $7.3 million contract for the Department of Transportation for COBOL programmers charged with maintaining mainframe legacy systems that were obsolete years ago.

The time has come to rapidly and aggressively invest in information technology modernization. Modern cloud systems are rapidly scalable based on demand, and offer better interoperability between agencies. This “Data as a Service” model, implemented successfully in states such as Georgia and Texas, allows the state to respond to crises quickly, and avoid fixed costs endemic to legacy systems in normal times. Data sharing across agencies and more cost-effective device management systems would allow our agencies to better serve the people of Maryland.

This modernization process is not simple and it will only get more expensive the longer we procrastinate. However, there are models we can learn from. Massachusetts created an Investment Board for IT Modernization and issued bonds to finance their technical deficit. California partnered with IBM to share the capital cost of new data centers. Maryland must take a similar bold step to create a non-political mechanism to guide State IT investment and create a migration plan to update the totality of our operations to nimble, modern, cloud-based systems.

We owe it to our constituents to learn from our unexpected and frustrating experience with unemployment benefits. We must prevent any type of “sequel” from happening with potentially more devastating consequences (for example, the Department of Health or the Comptroller’s Office). We have spent far too much time putting lipstick on a pig and pretending it won’t come back to bite us. We must invest now — our economy, health and children’s future may literally depend on it.

— KATIE FRY HESTER AND MICHAEL JACKSON

Katie Fry Hester, a Democrat, represents Howard and Carroll counties in the Maryland Senate. Del. Michael Jackson, a Democrat, represents Prince George’s and Calvert counties in the House of Delegates. They co-chair the Joint Committee on Cybersecurity, IT and Biotechnology. The committee will be holding a public hearing on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m., to discuss issues of IT modernization and the challenges an aging IT system posed during an unemployment insurance crisis. It can be watched here.