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COVID-19: The Ultimate Stress Test for Major Government Systems

Crashing state unemployment websites. Overwhelmed call centers. Millions out of work. Cloud technologies stepped up to the plate as the public sector worked to get citizens what they needed during the pandemic.

A woman wearing a facemask walking and looking through a folder of documents.
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What happens when the demand on a piece of technology multiplies again and again in the span of several days? The COVID-19 pandemic has given us many answers.

The week of March 21, 2020, was an economic implosion: The number of people applying for unemployment insurance in the U.S. increased more than elevenfold. The following week, it doubled. It happened in every state, practically all at once. As of this writing, the country is still receiving more than three times the number of unemployment claims per week than it saw before the pandemic.

For unemployment administrators, it was an unprecedented exercise in scaling operations. And predictably, problems abounded. By April 15, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation had found that 26 state unemployment websites had crashed. One of them was Ohio, where residents reported to the Cleveland Plain Dealer that their names weren’t matching up with their Social Security numbers. Some said they received forms to fill out after the deadline to submit them had passed. Others reported their applications being rejected because they weren’t looking for work, a requirement the state had waived for the pandemic.

Elsewhere, people experienced long turnaround times for approval, long wait times to receive their approved payments and incorrect payment amounts. All this as they stared down bills for essentials like rent, food and health care.

And then the omnipresent tech issue: call centers. With so many people applying for unemployment at once — many for the first time — help lines were swamped. That meant extreme wait times; the Sacramento Bee reported an average of four to six weeks for the state of California to call back applicants in August.

In some ways, this unparalleled stress test of giant government systems was the moment cloud was made to meet. One fundamental aspect of the technology is its ability to scale up quickly based on demand for services, and many governments leaned on that in order to handle the huge number of claims coming in. The CIO of Mississippi’s Department of Employment Security, Mohammed Jalaluddin, relayed to Government Technology in late April that the state was able to avoid a crash of its system because of its investments in cloud.

Other states, like Rhode Island, used cloud to avoid rapid updates to legacy technology to handle the changed environment. When Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — a supplemental benefit with different administration rules than regular unemployment insurance — became available, Rhode Island launched a cloud application to handle the program. The alternative would have been a massive recoding of its COBOL-based UI system.

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Oklahoma followed a similar path, setting up a cloud-based portal for handling PUA claims rather than routing them through its existing UI system.

Many also used cloud to create or expand their call centers for UI, including Ohio. Others, such as the Texas Workforce Commission, turned to chatbots to help answer some of the more common questions in order to relieve workload on human call-takers.

IT leaders in government have pitched all this work as evidence for their necessity in a time when most state and local agencies will be looking at huge revenue drops. Though the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress did bring some money in for technology projects, budgets have tightened, and national experts have predicted that the purse strings won’t be loosening quickly. Whether IT leaders are able to maintain their budgets in the face of all the cutbacks — through arguing for technology as a cost-saver or simply as foundational.

This story is part of our 2020 Year in Review series.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.
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