Former Oracle executive Kristin Russell used to be in charge of all the company’s data centers and worldwide computer operations. She was accustomed to technology being replaced every three to five years, a norm in the private sector. So when she decided to join Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration earlier this year to serve as the state’s secretary of technology and CIO — her first government job — she was shocked by the condition of the state’s computer systems.

She learned that Colorado’s unemployment benefits system is 25 years old, its tax system is 23 years, and its titling system is 26 years old. And a recent audit found that the state’s financial reporting system, which processes $36 billion in expenditures annually, is at risk of failure. Russell’s discoveries confirmed an analysis two years ago of 200 of Colorado’s IT systems, which found that 77 of the state’s IT systems were more than 15 years old, and half had been around for at least a decade.

Many of these computer systems are coded in antiquated computer languages known only by the most senior of personnel — many of whom are set to retire in the next few years. The companies that built these systems in the first place no longer support them because the technology is so old, which drives up support costs with each passing year.

The situation has left Russell to wonder exactly how long her state can continue to scrape by. She likened state government’s systems to a consumer who is trapped in the past. The rest of the world has moved on to iPods and high-definition TV, but state governments continue to run eight-tracks and black-and-white sets.

There’s a growing sense that states like Colorado have run out of time, and that replacing these decrepit systems is a necessity, not a choice. Russell is among the optimists who believe that state governments can find a way to replace their old systems, even though funding appropriated by state legislatures and the federal government to do the necessary upgrades likely will be limited. Achieving success will require news ways of thinking and a willingness to work together.

“Being in IT and the high-tech industry my entire career, the big approach to brand-new systems has been tried out many times with increasingly disastrous results in terms of cost expenditures and failures,” she said. The “light switch” type of approach to system design and implementation is passé. “We need constant evolution to be in a better place than where we are today, and reliance on and help from the private sector and third-party vendors to help get there.”

CIOs like Russell are encouraged that states are working on developing systems that they can share. The thinking is that by banding together, these “multistate” systems can be updated as time goes on, helping to avoid the current problem of outdated computer systems. It also might be significantly cheaper.

Matt Williams  |  Associate Editor