Opinion: Virus highlights tech issues in state

COVID-19 is reminding us that many mundane aspects of governing actually matter and that leaving unglamorous problems insufficiently addressed can come back to bite us. The information technology problems facing the Kansas Department of Labor perfectly illustrate this.

Many Kansans have lost jobs in this crisis. Gov. Laura Kelly has announced that 130,000 Kansans filed initial unemployment insurance claims in recent weeks. The Lawrence Journal-World reports that this is “a 3,400% increase over the same week last year” and that online claims are up nearly 7,000%.

That sheer volume is overwhelming KDOL. In just one day recently, per media reports, 877,000 attempted calls hit KDOL’s 200 phone lines. That number of phone lines is sufficient capacity for normal days, but not in this crisis.

Making things worse, KDOL has an aging IT system, some parts of which are 40 years old. Traffic has overwhelmed its outdated unemployment claims website, causing KDOL to redirect Kansans to its inundated phone system.

Despite adding staff, extending staff hours, and increasing capacity, KDOL has struggled to keep up. Understandably, this is a frustrating situation. We need government to work, especially in crisis. And government must remedy this situation quickly.

But this problem didn’t magically appear.

Kansas government has persistent IT problems predating COVID-19 — problems that lawmakers knew about, didn’t sufficiently address and that often leave government agencies struggling to find piecemeal solutions.

In October 2019, Governing magazine cited “technology obsolescence, budget constraints, security, recruiting employees and limits on resources” as IT challenges facing Kansas government agencies. Government audits and media reports have documented these issues for years.

Googling finds some stories you might remember.

In 2019, Kelly appointed a state chief technology officer, a position that had been vacant for four years. The Wichita Eagle reported last August that most of state government’s IT infrastructure was at “end of life” status and that manufacturers were no longer providing technological support.

In 2017 and 2018, the Sam Brownback administration gave no-bid contracts worth $110 million to two IT companies, costing 56 IT workers their jobs. Kelly later canceled the contracts and sought to rehire the workers.

In 2016, the Brownback administration spent $10 million on computers that it left unused. The state donated them to Kansas State University in 2019.

In 2015, contractors delivered an overdue computer system for state Medicaid applications. The system required dozens of workarounds to function properly, causing application processing delays.

In 2012, Kansas paid $40 million for an upgraded Department of Motor Vehicles computer system that persistently malfunctioned, causing customer delays.

What’s happening now at KDOL is symptomatic of a long-term, known problem.

Though the Kansas Legislature should have been addressing these issues better than it did over the last decade through consistent oversight and funding, its attention has also been elsewhere — revenue shortages, abortion, guns, Medicaid and school funding. And outdated IT typically isn’t a hot issue for voters, so there probably wasn’t huge public pressure for lawmakers to address this.

Acknowledging this big picture doesn’t fix immediate challenges at KDOL or help struggling Kansans. But we can learn and improve before the next crisis.

Going forward, we should ask policymakers for clear solutions to these problems. Can the governor redirect resources? Can legislators find the political will to provide viable solutions and resources? IT isn’t super sexy, but it’s super important for making government function.

— Patrick R. Miller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

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