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 People call them ancient, outdated and obsolete, and say they hold organizations back.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In one case, when Press staff wanted to look at recorded complaints against cable TV providers, the technology was too outdated to make an analysis possible.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.
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.
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.”
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.