The Retirement Paradox

The Retirement Paradox

by / October 13, 2003
Nothing escapes the aging process. Government, for example, finds itself in the double bind of facing the retirement of both man and machine in the very near future. It is commonly agreed that about half of the public sector's IT work force will be eligible for retirement within five to eight years. And many of government's legacy mainframe computer systems face a similar fate.

Throughout 2003, state and local governments wrestled with often-historic deficits -- compounding the retirement dilemma. Even those who recognize the looming crisis are too cash-strapped to tackle the challenge head-on.

Nonetheless, some IT leaders are exploring options to preempt a situation that threatens to stymie the progress of digital government. The Center for Digital Government recently released a study, Pay IT Forward: Doing the Public's Business While Reducing Pressure on the General Fund, that examines how some states are funding technology without tapping their general fund -- a pot of money so vulnerable to the whims of politics, it is clearly an unreliable source.

Among the models cited in the study are Iowa, where unused funds that would normally revert to the general fund are diverted to technology; Washington and Alabama, where surplus funds from agency savings are rebated to the agencies by the state service provider; Salt Lake City, where advertising and sponsorship on government Web pages defer some IT costs; and several states in which public bonds support IT investments.

But roadblocks to filling the need for skilled IT workers as systems undergo change are not all related to funding. In California, where Government Technology magazine is headquartered, there are more than a few PR problems to overcome -- for example, the 1994 debacle suffered by the state DMV when its $44 million investment in a replacement for its aging mainframe failed miserably and publicly. Now, nine years later, the department's 38-year-old mainframe and data systems still need replacement. But the political memory of embarrassing headlines is long and archived under the title "Too Hot to Handle." It's unlikely the DMV will even broach the subject with the Legislature.

Even if the department does find a way to transform its technology tools, the people problem will persist. Mark Struckman, director of research for the Center for Digital Government, notes that old systems will have to remain fully operational during the transition to the new infrastructure -- a process that could take years. This brings an urgency to the problem. "Government needs to start identifying the systems built on legacy platforms that need to be replaced, before the people who have those vanishing skills have retired," he said.

This year, legislatures across the country may have unknowingly compounded the problem by offering across-the-board early retirement packages to state employees in an effort to balance their budgets, Struckman said. He suggests IT workers should have been exempted from such programs.

Ohio CIO Greg Jackson has put work force training and retention on his list of priorities. Recognizing the fiscal constraints of tough times, he says government culture contributes equally to the challenge. There is little incentive, he observes, for state employees facing imminent retirement to hone their technology skills. Jackson has enlisted the help of unions in addressing the training issue. Bucking the traditional adversarial relationship between government and employee unions, he is asking for their help in building the future's tech-savvy workers.

Even with physical evidence -- an aging work force and technology that is rapidly becoming archaic -- not many governments are acknowledging the need to be proactive.

Once again, it is not technology that impedes change. It is the human factor.
Darby Patterson Executive Editor at Large