A 50-year-old Unemployment System (Finally) Nears an Overhaul

The skyline in Madison, Wisconsin at dusk.

The skyline in Madison, Wisconsin at dusk. iStock.com/Sean Pavone

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Wisconsin officials have said the outdated computer technology contributed to problems processing claims during the pandemic. Now they’re looking for bids to revamp it.

Wisconsin’s workforce agency is moving ahead with an effort to make major upgrades to the state’s decades-old unemployment computer system, which officials blamed for delays processing benefit claims during the pandemic.

The Department of Workforce Development released a request for proposals this week seeking bids from contractors who can carry out the overhaul. Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature have declined to approve state funding for the project. But the department noted that Gov. Tony Evers has committed to using federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to pay for it.

Evers, a Democrat, earlier this year proposed putting nearly $80 million toward the upgrade. His office and the Department of Workforce Development did not immediately respond to questions on Thursday about how much of the federal recovery funding the governor is planning to tap.

The current unemployment system depends on technology that dates back to the 1970s. 

"We are excited to continue the overhaul of Wisconsin's 50-year-old UI system, a system that has been neglected for decades," Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development  Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek said in a statement.

“Too many people have had to wait longer than necessary to receive their UI benefits because of a technical glitch or because they incorrectly answered a question that triggered an investigation into their eligibility," Pechacek added.

Wisconsin’s technology challenges aren’t entirely unique. Outdated unemployment systems have dogged other states and many workforce agencies struggled to handle a giant surge in claims after Covid-19 hit, while also working to administer newly created emergency benefits.

The Department of Workforce Development’s request for proposals outlines a plan to modernize the system using an “agile approach,” which will involve a “series of smaller, tightly scoped component upgrades that can be released for use as they are completed” and address the most urgent needs first. One aim with the update will be to retire mainframe technology now in use.

“DWD's overall goal is to use a modular approach so its system can work in an ever-changing environment,” the RFP says. “Through this modernization project, DWD will be prepared to quickly implement program and policy changes at any time, while also maintaining its existing program applications without interruption or delay.” 

Apart from causing frustration for people applying for benefits, the outdated computer technology has created difficulties for employees who work with it. Staff had to manually adjust about 250,000 cases last year, according to the Department of Workforce Development.

‘Complicated and Antiquated’ System

The RFP describes the computer system as “complicated and antiquated” and “difficult to maintain,” noting that it contains about 8.6 million lines of programming code accrued over the years, forcing developers to examine thousands of lines of code if they want to make bug-free changes. Meanwhile, a database the system relies on contains about 5,000 tables and around 3.3 billion rows of data that date back to the 1970s, the request for proposals also says.

"One of the most glaring lessons learned from the Great Recession was the need to modernize the UI system, yet Wisconsin still faced one of the most antiquated and inflexible systems in the country when the pandemic hit," Pechacek said, referring to the 2008-era downturn.

When developing the request for proposals, the state worked with the federal government’s in-house tech consultancy, known as 18F, along with U.S. Digital Response, a nonprofit that assists public sector agencies with technical needs.

Proposals for the project are due by July 16 and the estimated contract start date is Sept. 1. The timeframe for the contract is initially 12 months, with three optional one-year renewals thereafter.

The release of the request for proposals comes as Wisconsin state lawmakers sent Evers an $87.5 billion, two-year budget plan this week that they are urging him to sign.

Bill Lucia is a senior editor for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

NEXT STORY: Better Customer Experience a Priority for State, Local IT Post Pandemic

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