But it might take awhile, since New Jersey’s legacy systems are big, numerous and spread out. It’s already enough work for staff to identify the most popular kinds of requests that are made so they can know what reports to make a priority and generate them.

“We are trying to identify the top 10 requests that we’re constantly getting, and before the end of the calendar year we want to be in position to post those reports and weed out those reports from the request process,” Ebeid said. “That will allow the folks who are already shorthanded to just focus on some of the bigger report requests.”

Leading research indicates that New Jersey isn't alone in facing legacy systems. In 2008, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) published the report Digital States at Risk!: Modernizing Legacy Systems, which divulged 29 states’ experiences with wiping the dust off their technology. The challenges go beyond age.

According to Doug Robinson, the organization’s executive director, sometimes legacy systems aren’t necessarily old, but rather they’re designed to handle a certain volume of tasks. And when this volume increases — or the tasks themselves change — the systems don’t typically change with them.

“States have all been struggling, even those with relatively modernized systems, [to] handle the load," he said. “They weren’t designed to handle that tremendous increase in volume, so that’s always been a tough one.”

It’s Business, Not Technology

Sixty-nine percent of states surveyed by NASCIO cited the graying of IT staff and application-design limitations as a driver toward modernization. But aging workers in a bad economy don’t seem immediately troubling for New Jersey.

“We are seeing some of the folks who may have the skill sets and may have been involved in developing systems like this in the ’70s and early ’80s are really finding out that their 401(k) are not what they hoped for, so they are entering the employment marketplace again and we are picking up some of those individuals,” Ebeid said.

He’s confident that New Jersey will have sufficient and appropriate manpower to keep the legacy systems in stable enough shape until the government can complete modernization efforts. When doing an overhaul, Ebeid said that instead of looking at the systems, people should look the types of business processes these systems are supposed to handle.  What if the business operation needs to be modified and not the technology?

“One thing that people don’t really think about is that the legacy systems are mainly there to support legacy processes, legacy business practices — and that’s probably one area that we would like to focus on here,” he said.

Eighty-six percent of the states surveyed by NASCIO cited that changing or re-engineering business processes was the No. 1 driver for system modernization. The second most cited driver, the inability to adequately support “line-of-business” requirements, came in at 83 percent.

In Ebeid’s opinion, modernizing comes in two options: Either buy an off-the-shelf product and customize it, or change the business processes themselves so they’ll fit into an off-the-shelf product, which would reduce the cost of renovating the system and thus reduce the burden to taxpayers. In any case, focusing on system updating might begin with focusing on the processes the systems were originally designed to support and handle.

“Systems didn’t just spring out and come up on the machine one day and dictate a process,” Ebeid said. “In many ways, they were really designed in the ’70s and early ’80s to support whatever business process was in place. So if we’re going to embark on a modernization effort, we are not going to do it unless we rethink the business process.”

New Jersey has a lot to rethink, since the examination and assessment process is in its infancy. Although Ebeid was quoted by The Press of Atlantic City saying that modernization efforts might cost a state of New Jersey’s size about $300 million to $400 million to complete, he told Government Technology that it’s too early to determine the cost. New Jersey doesn’t yet know what or how to modernize and which vendors or integrators to partner with. The state was scheduled to hold a one-day summit in September inviting numerous companies to attend.

“We really want to challenge them to think of different funding scenarios that would help us renovate at the least cost possible for taxpayers,” Ebeid said.

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  |  GT Staff Writer

By day, Hilton Collins is a staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines who covers sustainability, cybersecurity and disaster management issues. By night, he’s a sci-fi/fantasy fanatic, and if he had to choose between comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm. He can be reached at hcollins@govtech.com and on @hiltoncollins on Twitter.