Senator Andrew Zwicker | May 9, 2022 | NJ Spotlight News |
Unemployment claims that go unresolved for months. Waiting times at a Motor Vehicle office that stretch beyond two to three hours. Confusion at the Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency regarding getting out aid to both landlords and tenants in the face of a looming eviction crisis.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know something is really wrong here.
During a committee hearing in March that concerned the Department of Labor’s glaring inability to properly, promptly and efficiently administer unemployment claims, I was able to share a story about a constituent in my district who had reached out to me, desperate for help. She had waited so long to hear about her UI claim that in the interim she married and changed her name, which only brought on more logistical headaches and added to her frustrations in being able to claim the benefits to which she was entitled.
Two years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and stories like this are more common than you would think, and it is really not a surprise. New Jersey’s unemployment systems are 40-plus years old and were written in COBOL — a programming language initially developed in 1959. When Gov. Phil Murphy originally put out a call for anyone who could program in COBOL, many laughed, but the truth is that this is not a laughing matter. Nor is the computer infrastructure problem exclusive to unemployment claims or the Department of Labor. Indeed, technology upgrades are a dire need across our government, and must be undertaken in a broad and holistic fashion.
Weaknesses uncovered by COVID-19
The pandemic, as horrible as it has been for so many New Jersey families and businesses, has also served to expose weaknesses in our state government and its systems. Chief among those has been the dramatic underperformance of our inefficient, antiquated and disparate computer systems, and the way they operate. These breakdowns have been far worse than mere computer glitches or stalled programs; these systems have shown to not only be ineffective, but also unhelpful if not punitive to the point of causing our residents much pain and anxiety, if not full-blown panic.
To cite one more real-life experience, one of my Senate colleagues recently related to me the story of waiting with her husband for three hours at a Motor Vehicle Commission site in order to get a Real ID — only to be told that he lacked the proper paperwork and then being sent home. Certainly, nearly every person who lives in New Jersey has heard, or experienced, a similar situation. These sorts of horror stories date back decades.
Yet that doesn’t mean they should be allowed to continue. If we as a state want to be the best we can be, we must help our residents more easily secure basic services and benefits to which they are entitled — and in a reasonable time frame. We must move with haste to overhaul our state’s computer systems and operations. Many other states have taken up the call to improve their systems; moreover, the world at large is leaving us behind.
Patches are not the answer
When it comes to our computers and technology capacities, we in New Jersey seem to be content to drive a gas-guzzling and inefficient 1980s-era SUV, while our governmental and economic competitors in other states are driving sleek new electric vehicles. This must not and cannot continue to be the case. Now is the time to not just fix but to upgrade the entire system, and not just the parts that continue to make the headlines.
This is a critical infrastructure upgrade similar to what we must do with our roads and bridges. New Jersey is due roughly $13.5 billion in federal funds over the next five years under the federal infrastructure legislation. That includes roughly $7 billion for highway repairs, and $1 billion for bridge repairs.
Further down the priority list are those upgrades that deal with technology. The state will receive at least $100 million to expand high-speed internet connections and $17 million to protect its computer systems against cyberattacks.
While this infusion of aid is critically important, it is not enough to help us fully upgrade our computer and technological infrastructure. As a country we must treat this need for tech upgrade in the same way Eisenhower viewed the need for the Interstate Transportation System, as a wide-ranging defense effort that will also improve our efficiency, our economy and make life better for millions of Americans.
But we need not wait for Washington to act to begin our own technology innovations. Such innovations and upgrades to our state computer systems have spurred much discussion among elected leaders and policy stakeholders in and around Trenton for nearly two decades. It is time to come up with concrete action, a realistic computer infrastructure plan that will not only serve our state and its residents today, but for decades to come.
Expensive, but worth it
Thankfully, there does seem to be some acknowledgment of these problems within the Murphy administration. Last October, New Jersey’s chief technology officer issued a 14-page report titled “New Jersey State Government Critical Information Technology Needs and Funding Eligibility” that includes a call to modernize specific legacy systems; a need for a statewide identity management system; and physical upgrades to the state’s enterprise data center. The report also contains a breakdown of specific needs within various areas, such as the Department of Labor, MVC and critical systems in the budgeting, tax and accounting systems.
In addition, New Jersey is part of a pilot federal program to modernize the UI system. According to Department of Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo, a major upgrade is ongoing, with the system set to be overhauled before the end of the year.
These are encouraging signs, but we must move quickly and decisively to improve all of our systems and make them sustainable, not in one place, and then another, department by department, but real and lasting innovative changes. We need the upgrades the DOL makes to be compatible with other departments. They need to be able to talk to each other, which will make every department more efficient.
In my view, only a holistic, systemic approach will suffice. Yes, it will be expensive, but there are federal funds that can be tapped to help us along. In the end, doing nothing will be more expensive than broad-based, effective initiatives to make our computer and technology systems whole, and more efficient and user-friendly for all New Jerseyans. As I said, it’s not rocket science.
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