November 15, 2011 By Matt Williams
Colorado’s computer systems — old as they are — aren’t out of line compared to other state governments. Rather, national data show that Colorado’s oldest systems — the ones Russell said are more than two decades old — are in the middle of the pack among systems operated and maintained by other state governments.
A study of states’ unemployment insurance (UI) systems made public last year by the National Association of State Workforce Agencies reported that most of them were first built in the 1970s and 1980s, and haven’t been modernized significantly since then. These systems, which collect unemployment taxes from employers and determine eligibility and pay unemployment benefits to workers, are in many cases considered separately as “tax systems” and “benefits systems.” A state government’s average benefits system, as of last year’s data, is 22 years old, while the average tax system is 24 years old, according to the study. The oldest of these systems, as of 2010, were 41 and 42 years old, respectively. Only eight states had modernized their systems, meaning they can fully support Web-based features and current database technology.
Before and after the Y2K scare, many states installed new enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, which integrate a variety of business information, such as accounting and human resources data across a government. But 10 years later, even some of these systems are beginning to show their age. Several states are still running financial systems — which are often a part of the ERP — that were first implemented in the 1980s or 1990s, and may not have been heavily customized since then.
Old systems are found in all state governments, irrespective of geography. New Jersey’s payroll system, for example, dates back to 1969, and the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission uses a mainframe system that’s 30 years old — prompting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to float a $60 million plan for upgrades. Meanwhile, Arizona’s state financial system, which is used by 90 percent of the state’s agencies, is 25 years old. It runs on an IBM mainframe and uses the old COBOL and DB2 programming languages. Arizona has hired a consulting firm to help upgrade to an ERP system.
Utah’s MMIS is more than 20 years old and also runs on COBOL. “That’s the one we’re looking at [modernizing],” said Utah CIO Steve Fletcher. “The federal government pays for 90 percent of it, but it’s still very expensive — $120 million to build a new system.”
Installing new modules in the old MMIS is difficult for Utah to do, Fletcher said, because it’s trying to force COBOL to do something it wasn’t designed for. To make matters worse, the people who know how to code in COBOL are disappearing as they reach retirement age. “You spend an inordinate amount of time coding it and you spend an inordinate amount of time testing it. The cost for development becomes rather exorbitant,” Fletcher said.
Delaware CIO Jim Sills said the state’s top 11 mainframe systems average more than 20 years old and nearly half of those systems need to be replaced. Supporting those systems is difficult because the technology is old and so are the people who know how to maintain them. “I call it the ‘silver tsunami,’ a maturing workforce that will not be around to support these systems,” he said.
The looming wave of retirements expected among senior IT staff is no secret, as it’s been projected for years. A study released in January by NASCIO concluded that CIOs expect as much as 30 percent of their staffs to be eligible to retire within the next five years.
A loss of expertise is only one of several factors making system replacement an urgent priority. Other motivators are the promise of improved security and upgraded systems capable of pushing data out in order to support transparency.
Dave Andrews, who heads Accenture’s state and local government ERP practice, has been in the business since the 1980s. As the years went by, he came to believe that state governments would get a maximum of 20 years from their big systems. In reality, states held out even longer. “Would somebody out there be surprised to learn that there are systems that are 30 years old running the business of government? Yeah, that would surprise people,” Andrews said. The general public would be amazed by the amount of paper that still flows through government, and the “green screen” computer terminals still relied upon for back-office work, he said.
“We’re not replacing systems that are client-server or Web-based systems. We’re still replacing the mainframe systems,” Andrews said. He made the observation as he was visiting Richmond, Va., to meet with the controller about a 30-year-old KPMG green-screen system that’s still utilized by the agency.
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