It’s not easy being old, especially for legacy systems. People call them ancient, outdated and obsolete, and say they hold organizations back. They’re too slow, don’t integrate well or at all with other systems, and can’t scale easily to handle larger workloads — so how can a department function in top form with these complications?

There’s a good chance that New Jersey government officials have asked themselves this question more than once. The state’s issues with legacy systems were highlighted in a June 2010 article by The Press of Atlantic City. The story listed the 10 oldest systems — the oldest being a payroll system in the Office of Management and Budget from 1969, the newest the Pensions and Benefits Division’s pensions system from 1995.

The publication learned of these legacy systems after requesting electronic records from two state agencies, and was told the requests couldn't be honored because of technical limitations. There was even the possibility that system operations could halt completely if employees tried to copy the records. In one case, when Press staff wanted to look at recorded complaints against cable TV providers, the technology was too outdated to make an analysis possible.

When state staff spoke to Government Technology, they summarized why these problems exist.

“Let me give you just one quick example. Somebody wants to know all the teachers that retired this year. That’s easy,” said Andrew Pratt, communications director for the Treasury Department. “But now if somebody says they want to know all the teachers who retired in Morris County or Hudson County, who had more than 20 years of services and filed [for retirement] in July and August. ... The first request, all the teachers that filed for retirement, is easy. The second request is hard because we do not normally run forms that have, as a report, that particular search field in them.”

It’s not always a case of requests being too sophisticated as it is that they’re new types of requests that government employees — and existing systems — have never dealt with before.

“If somebody has already written a program because of a past records request, that can take a short period of time to do,” Pratt said. “But if somebody is looking for certain types of fields that compare one thing to another, and we don’t have a program already written for that, then a program has to be written to generate that information. That’s the kind of problem that we face.”

Pratt added that complicated requests could force the state to redirect resources and charge the requester a fee that many people would balk at paying. The fees collected would have to pay for new programs written to handle the new types of requests. Other technology problems have even hindered the Treasury Department's ability to get payroll out in the past. And the treasurer himself, Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, wrote in an e-mail to Government Technology that the treasury’s current technology impedes system improvements.

“We are not experiencing malfunctions due to age, per se. Old systems, however, severely limit our ability to modernize core business functions, such as payroll, procurement and accounting,” he wrote.

Sorting out the Situation

State officials want to change and update these systems, but that’s a tall order. New Jersey’s Department of Treasury is a mega-department, comprising 22 agencies and divisions that often act independently.  It’s time-consuming to scrutinize each agency’s technology for inadequacies.

But New Jersey CTO Adel Ebeid is taking on the challenge with a brave face. “This is a great opportunity for our current governor and treasurer to tell their stories frankly," he said. "This is an administration that has recognized how old our systems are and has started to take great strides to address the issue.”

So with both Sidamon-Eristoff’s and Gov. Chris Christie’s support, New Jersey is examining systems to see what needs to be done and how to do so.

“The purpose of the systems review we are currently engaged in is to answer just these questions: What’s stable and working? What core business needs are not being met or supported? To meet current and projected business needs, which systems are amenable to upgrading and which will require wholesale replacement?” Sidamon-Eristoff said.

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  | 

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.