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Building Digital Government That Can Withstand Surges

The COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed many state unemployment insurance websites. While some fared better than others, all governments can take advantage of things like cloud technology to prepare for the next storm.

New York State unemployment insurance sign
Shutterstock/lev radin
The coronavirus has had a devastating impact on the economy. Between late March and early April, 22 million Americans filed for unemployment. Unfortunately, many faced significant challenges and delays seeking benefits because many state government websites crashed, and call centers were overwhelmed, due to the surge in demand.

According to an analysis by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), by mid-April over half of state unemployment websites had experienced significant outages. Florida’s site went down for 16 hours at one point, while Michigan’s went down for nearly six hours. And even when residents could access these sites, they often couldn’t complete their applications or would receive erroneous messages saying they were ineligible. 

Clearly, part of the problem was that many agencies had simply never contemplated a surge in volume of this magnitude. In Minnesota, for example, the state went from receiving 50 applicants per hour one day to 2,000 applicants per day. The New York State Department of Labor reported a 1,600 percent increase in Web traffic compared to a typical week.

But not all states’ unemployment websites crashed, even though unemployment numbers shot up nationwide. Agencies that had developed cloud-based applications have been generally able to meet the demand. Others have been running outdated systems. Florida’s unemployment website, for example, was running an old version of Internet Information Services, the Windows-based Web server, and designed its system using an older version of And one survey of state unemployment agencies found that at least 12 states used COBOL — a programming language popular in the 1970s for which there are few programmers now available — in some capacity in their systems.

Another problem was that unemployment websites couldn’t keep up with policy changes. For example, many states normally require applicants to prove they are actively searching for work to qualify for unemployment benefits but waived those requirements during the pandemic. Unfortunately, these changes were not always made on the government’s online forms, creating confusion among applicants.

These small mistakes can have a big impact. Typically, if people have questions about their applications, or if the website is down, they can call the agency. But call centers were also overwhelmed as they had no ability to quickly scale up to meet higher demand. The Texas Workforce Commission, for example, reported getting up to 3 million calls per day. In addition, many government agencies had not fully digitized the entire unemployment application process. For example, in New York, applicants are required to call to verify their details before they can receive benefits. As a result, the state saw a 16,000 percent increase in call volume over typical weeks. The dependence on call centers exposed a secondary fault line in many agencies’ planning.

States have scrambled to address these problems. Some turned to their citizens to solve the issue by advising them to submit their applications late at night or only on certain days depending on the first letter of their last name to avoid overwhelming the system again. Others have quickly launched IT initiatives. New York partnered with Google on a new unemployment website. Florida signed contracts worth over $100 million to provide additional call centers and added 100 more servers to handle Internet traffic. 

But even when these websites are online, many still fail to meet users’ needs. For example, 41 states had unemployment sites that performed poorly on mobile devices, according to ITIF. Designing government websites for mobile is vital because this is the only form of home Internet access for around 20 percent of Americans. Also, 19 states had websites that didn’t meet the World Wide Web Consortium’s accessibility standards, which ensure that websites are accessible to people with disabilities, especially those who are blind or have low vision.

While states ultimately are responsible for ensuring their sites are fast, accessible, mobile-friendly and secure, moving to the cloud and adopting a mobile-first strategy are steps in the right direction. 

Daniel Castro is the vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and director of the Center for Data Innovation. Before joining ITIF, he worked at the Government Accountability Office where he audited IT security and management controls.