Anxiety is at its height as Pennsylvania begins a massive overhaul of the unemployment computer system

“Elastics and duct tape”

Pennsylvania’s efforts to modernize its system for managing unemployment benefits, tax programs, and many other unemployment services have been marred by failure, delay, waste, litigation and false starts. In 15 years, spanning three jurisdictions, the promise to modernize it and its services has already cost taxpayers at least $ 200 million.

The original mainframe was built by IBM in the 1960s, marking the start of the state’s long relationship with the tech company that ended in a contract dissolved in 2013 and a lawsuit filed. in 2017 which is still ongoing. IBM built on an old but powerful mainframe, with large tin boxes that process millions of data sets at once, and green screen terminals.

Because of its processing power, many states, the federal government, banks, airlines, and more depend on this hardware.

For decades, the federal government has consistently pushed for the outsourcing of technology so as not to compete with private industry and keep pace with innovation. This philosophy has persisted despite significant evidence that outsourcing technical capacity costs public agencies more money and depletes in-house expertise.

In the early 2000s, the state’s Department of Labor and Industry decided to overhaul its existing technology, claiming it was obsolete, relying on a patchwork of legacy programs that can take days to process. simple problems and worked with limited coding language skills.

So in 2005, he signed a four-year, $ 109.9 million contract with IBM that covered 6,500 pages and defined 1,500 “explicit business requirements”. IBM would integrate all unemployment benefit technology systems, calculate payments and tax information transparently, transfer data from the old system, and provide an easy-to-use Internet interface.

These are known as waterfall projects, Jaquith said, because they present an exhaustive, top-down list of requirements defined by a government body and passed on to a developer.

In 2013, few requests materialized. The project was $ 60 million over budget, nearly four years overdue and still unusable, according to legal documents. Every time IBM failed to meet a deadline or meet a project goal, Pennsylvania gradually paid the company more.

Pennsylvania was not an outlier. In 2016, around 77% of unemployment modernization projects nationwide had failed, exceeded their budget and lacked critical requirements, or were still underway, according to a recent report by the Century Foundation.

The state sued IBM in 2017, seeking to recoup money and the cost of maintaining the existing system, accusing it of using the state as its “personal cash register,” according to the complaint.

The state wrote in 2017 that it “did not have the expertise or information to fully assess the risks and perils of the project of which IBM was aware.”

And that’s partly because of the underinvestment in personnel and technical resources over the years, said Gerald Rickabaugh, 63, who has spent most of his 35-plus career working in the industry. IT for work and industry before retiring in 2016. That year, the state laid off 32 IT professionals, some with decades of experience.

Rickabaugh said IBM’s mainframe is more powerful and secure than the new cloud-based GSI system.

“They love to dump everything on the central system,” Rickabaugh said. “The mainframe is what kept this place going. It worked well.

He said that included eight million claims processed during the Great Recession.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Department of Labor and Industry has added hundreds of workers to help process more than six million federal and state claims, including more than 80 claim examiners and 250 contract workers to answer phones. , but cited problems with retention and being able to train sufficiently qualified staff to handle complex cases.

Yet there were many problems. The mainframe system required batch downloads which could delay some processing the next day and did not allow users to see updates in real time. State officials also argue that it is not intuitive, that it is difficult to code new federal or state regulatory changes, and that it does not easily allow claims reviewers to see issues as they arise. arise.

Berrier downplays the power and sophistication of the mainframe, claiming that it is “held together with rubber bands and duct tape.”

“Frankly, during this whole pandemic, we were basically crossing our fingers with our legacy mainframe system as we made changes to it,” she said.

Another big contract

The contract with GSI for the latest upgrade is over 2,500 pages long. The company’s technology is known as “off the shelf” or “plug and play,” which means that the underlying software is customized rather than built from the ground up.

But a study by Carnegie Mellon University find that these systems have had “very little success” and the underlying assumptions of how to adapt the technology to a new environment lead to “virtually all of our serious problems”.

There are also technical issues: Lawyers have said that a new password requirement could exclude many people from the system, and the state’s attempts to educate the public on how to use the new portal are inconvenient or helpful for the most part. He relies on applicants to read a 45-page instruction manual posted on his site or to attend a one-hour webinar.

Scott Andes, executive director of the Block Center for Technology and Society at Carnegie Mellon University, said too few governments prioritize the most important issue when modernizing a system: Does technology benefit? she to the public?

“I don’t think we’ve seen this in all areas,” Andes said.

The Ministry of Labor and Industry runs online training courses for applicants to learn how to navigate the new unemployment system. (Screenshot)

State officials say they have carried out extensive internal testing of the new system, but due to the pandemic, by mid-May only five members of the public, five employers and five legislative staff had participated in the trials. .

“This particular project has been tested unlike any other IT project that has been tested within the Commonwealth,” Berrier said on Friday. “We are comfortable enough to say that we are not expecting a major failure.”

She said the state has “emergency switch traction” but added: “The likelihood of that happening is very, very slim.”

Deputy Secretary Trusky said the state would also launch with “everyone on deck” and have a “war room” for issues as they arise, alongside staff from the GSI.

At a meeting of the advisory committee for the new system on May 26, Saralinda Bauer, project consultant with CSG Government Solutions Inc., said the overall status of the project continues to be “red.”

“It is, overall, a high risk project,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t keep moving forward with ‘go live’. “

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Gordon K. Morehouse