Editorial: Government has rocky relationship with computer challenges

We are not alone. Oregon is far from the only state that has had problems getting its computers to run as they should. Whether they’re used for student standardized tests or to keep track of people with accounts at the secretary of state’s office, computers seem to give government fits.

Thus at least five states have had problems with computer systems used to administer standardized tests associated with the Common Core curriculum. Seven states, meanwhile, had serious difficulties with computers attached to the Affordable Care Act, though surely none of the other six were as problem plagued as Oregon’s. Even the feds got into that particular act, by the way.

Oregon’s problems don’t stop there. In recent memory the state had major difficulties with computers in the Employment Department, and, in the mid 1990s, the motor vehicles division’s computers failed. Too, the city of Portland’s effort to install a new program governing water department bills was so problem-riddled it took several years and more than $30 million to come up with something that worked.

Back in Salem, the secretary of state’s office computers were hacked earlier this year, forcing a shutdown that denied citizens access to databases for roughly three weeks.

Now, The Oregonian reports there had been Internet alerts about problems with the open-source software at the secretary of state’ office for weeks before the system was hacked, but state techies had failed to act upon those warnings.

The Oregonian is keeping the name of the software secret, meanwhile, because it’s unclear if all state agencies have fixed the security problems associated with it. Secrecy, at least for now, probably makes sense.

Computers and the programs created for them are tricky, no doubt about it. No doubt, too, that private businesses probably have difficulties when they make major changes in the software they use. They can often keep those problems to themselves, however, while most government agencies are denied that luxury.

But state agencies and those who lead them seem particularly vulnerable to the sort of hubris that refuses to acknowledge difficulties until they can no longer be ignored. The fallout would be less, we suspect, if troubles were made public sooner, rather than later.