Recent struggles of Washington’s technology systems highlight the need to rethink and modernize state government’s approach to information technology.
A massive surge of unemployment claims overwhelmed the Employment Security Department this spring, delaying access to critically needed relief and increasing uncertainty for people who lost their jobs.
Nobody expected the system to get so busy. But it’s now clear what peak demand can be and how state systems choked.
Disasters are not only tragedies but also learning opportunities. The Great Seattle Fire of 1889 exposed the shortcomings of the city’s fire-protection infrastructure, prompting the city to upgrade and professionalize.
While officials are working hard to deliver services, key infrastructure fell short when needed most. That’s understandable to a degree, but the state must improve. That’s especially true since Washington is the world center for cloud computing, which enables organizations to quickly scale up systems and be ready for massive spikes in usage.
“We spend a lot of money on consultants and systems and IT and we have real problems, real challenges — it’s not an area of strength for us,” said state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, who has long advocated to improve state tech systems.
When the Legislature convenes in January, Carlyle, chair of the senate Energy, Environment and Technology Committee, plans to hold a hearing seeking a “full-scale, comprehensive after-action review” of how the state government performed during the crisis.
Washington can’t increase spending. But it can explore ways to make IT systems more efficient and resilient. That could mean relying more on cloud services and less on custom, in-house systems that cost more to maintain.
The state in recent years spent $1.7 billion on 83 substantial IT projects, according to the state chief information officer’s dashboard.
One was a $9.7 million case-management system the Department of Corrections completed in 2018. It’s hard to forget that department knew for years its software miscalculated prisoner sentences, before disclosing that in 2015. Thousands were released early, including two who killed people.
Also listed is a project started in 2007 to replace Employment Security’s mainframe for $46.8 million.
The dashboard shows the cost rose to $64.2 million in 2016, at which point the new system worked but still had issues to fix under warranty.
Fortunately, Suzi LeVine, a former Microsoft director and U.S. ambassador with exceptional tech fluency and organizational skills, now leads the agency. Gov. Jay Inslee appointed her in 2018.
That’s little consolation, though, for hundreds of thousands of residents desperately needing checks and stuck in the hell of a bureaucratic system meltdown.
To her credit, LeVine acknowledged problems, promptly updated the system and presented a detailed plan to resolve 100% of claims by June 15.
That transparency and accountability are welcome, especially compared to the prison scandal.
Less encouraging is finger-pointing over the last week, after Washington became the poster child for fraudulent unemployment claims occurring across the nation during the pandemic. Hundreds of millions of dollars were stolen before payments were halted for two days to address the problem.
The state must clearly explain why its system became the primary target for an international crime ring, as pinpointed by federal law enforcement authorities. While core systems may be secure, as LeVine stated, there was a vulnerability that allowed thievery at a higher rate here than in other states.
Fuller explanation is needed to assure residents that state systems handling sensitive information are truly secure and less vulnerable to being spoofed. The public also needs to know if its government erred and what corrective measures are needed.
Then Carlyle and the rest of the Legislature can focus broadly on what’s needed to improve the performance and efficiency of the state’s sprawling technology infrastructure.