How the Government’s Multibillion-Dollar Plan to Modernize Its Tech Could Go Horribly Wrong

Our ‘Kill It With Fire’ moment

Photo Credit: Edwin Levick via Getty Images

Replicating Kafkaesque business processes driven by decades of accumulated policy cruft on more current technology and attempting a “hard cutoff” to this new platform is a recipe for disaster.

Allowing these government functions to continue to operate with so little internal technical capacity and so little understanding by their leadership of their own systems is also a recipe for disaster. When I co-chaired a “strike team” appointed by Gov. Newsom last summer to look at problems in delivering unemployment insurance to Californians, my colleague Marina Nitze observed that she could count on one hand the number of department staff who understood how their own system worked from start to finish. It was clear that the leadership of the department did not have a grasp on the complex and fragile set of intertwined policies and technologies that resulted in both the remarkable number of claims that had been processed and the enormous backlog that had also accrued. A few of the vendors had some fragments of useful insight; none of them had the full picture. But the degree of reliance on vendors to figure out what to do was crippling.

The problem is not the mainframe. The problem is that it takes 10 years to train a new claims processor.

We have seen what happens when we modernize for the sake of modernizing and over-rely on vendors without regard to internal capacity. Almost half the states had modernized their unemployment insurance systems prior to the pandemic.* It didn’t help. With very few exceptions, all the states, modernized or not, struggled mightily to deliver benefits accurately to claimants in a timely manner, to combat massive fraud, and to report accurately. What’s unclear (perhaps just to me, perhaps also to the leaders in charge) was the goals of these modernization projects. Given that the need for unemployment insurance is cyclical and these systems accrued backlogs in the last down cycle, the Great Recession, one can only assume that ability to scale to meet the next one had been part of the goal. If so, oops. If not, perhaps that’s a decent starting place.

The good news is that there are a lot of people in government with the experience, skills, empathy, and mindset to get this right.

The money coming at modernization is not too much. There is much that needs to be modernized. It is only a problem if the people in charge of spending it conflate bold with big. Bold would be different from what has come before. Bold would be clear goals and empowering cross-disciplinary teams to make decisions that drive toward those goals quickly, building momentum through wins that show actual value. Bold would be iterating on policy and technology together. Bold would be building long-term capacity.

The amount of money coming at modernization is only a problem if the people in charge of spending it conflate bold with big.

Bellotti’s book could not have come at a better time, and while there are other factors in this equation, she outlines some of the most important. I just hope there is an audience for her message.

Committed to government that works for people. Advisor to USDR. Member of the Defense Innovation Board. Past: Code for America, USDS. Mom. Keeper of chickens.