“Moonshot” fix for NJ IT infrastructure
With 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 attacks the dismal IT infrastructure of the state.
State officials used the surprise injection of $ 10 billion in cash for the $ 46 billion 2022 budget, tackling long-standing and well-known problems – sweltering debt at interest rates raised ; underfunded state pension program; and school aid. Now they have an additional $ 4.2 billion on the bridge to the US bailout (plus an additional $ 2.2 billion planned for municipalities and counties), much of which has yet to be allocated. Governor Phil Murphy invited the many New Jersey interest groups to present their ideas.
My suggestion would not only benefit one sector of the population, it would address a deeply rooted issue that affects all New Jerseyans. And this is the one that will require a very large investment to fix it.
Emergencies have a way of exposing weaknesses in a system; In this regard, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly paid off. The poster child for the problem – which negatively affected hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans during the outbreak – was the poor performance of the state Department of Labor’s unemployment computer system.
Residents seeking unemployment help in 2020 encountered a completely overwhelmed system. New Jersey residents often had to wait months, sometimes up to a year, to get the money they were owed. This has contributed to long lines at food banks, residents unable to pay basic bills such as housing and utilities, and desperate pleas for help on the Facebook and Reddit forums.
The problem: the state unemployment portal was unable to handle the volume of claims. The initial solution proposed was to call special helplines. But these too were continually blocked due to the same volume. And even those who were lucky enough to reach an agent often found themselves stranded because the system was not flexible enough to handle any unusual or complicated problem. These “problematic cases” included out-of-state work or contract or irregular work. Equally problematic: those who have been made redundant have returned to work, only to be made redundant. In other words, basic problems that should have been anticipated.
Not equipped to deal with problems
Additionally, callers had no way of knowing that agents were not equipped to deal with real issues. They could only fill out one form that was put in a huge queue for a special programmer to address individually. This is because the labor department’s database is written in COBOL, a rigid programming language from the 1970s that can handle millions of records well, but requires a COBOL programmer to manipulate that data in order to deliver results. . While the state is correct that COBOL is still used by many banks and large organizations, these companies have invested in additional software that can handle complex problems without human intervention.
Worse yet, COBOL is no longer taught in school, as modern computer implementations use more flexible languages. For this reason, COBOL programmers are rare and demand the top of the salary scale. So the state was forced to ask retired COBOL programmers to come back to help with the backlog – no doubt at a premium.
But that wasn’t the only problem exposed by the pandemic. The immunization schedule system has proven to be a non-starter. When grants were announced to provide financial assistance to small businesses, the state’s Economic Development Authority website collapsed. And according to a spokesperson for US Senator Bob Menendez’s office, the state does not have a transparent technological connection with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees many grant programs, including ARP.
I am convinced that these are only the most obvious problems. I’m skeptical of claims that the state’s IT security is in good shape, given that so many large companies – which constantly monitor and invest in IT – have been affected by cyber attacks. And with 565 municipalities and 21 counties in the state, it’s likely that many are very late.
This is a serious problem that has been brewing for decades. With so many special interests vying for attention, it’s easy for officials to kick the road. That’s why it takes a windfall to really tackle the problem.
Fortunately, state officials are aware of the situation. The 2022 budget includes more than $ 48 million in IT investments. And he’s also calling on the Bureau of Information Technology to prepare a report detailing the state government’s most critical IT needs, to be delivered by October 1.
I just hope the state thinks big. It’s not often that New Jersey receives this kind of windfall. The effort should also include municipalities and counties – possibly providing a standard framework that all political entities must 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”.