The more you know about the failure to update the Oregon Employment Department’s computer system the more frustrating it becomes. It’s had the money. It has lacked the leadership, organizational stability and technical expertise to pull it off.
The Employment Department has scrambled to process more than 600,000 unemployment claims since the pandemic hit. It has not kept up. It has hired hundreds of new employees, opened a new center, started up a new hotline and more. Still, it has not kept up. And the department’s computer system has been a powerful obstacle.
So what went wrong? The Legislative Fiscal Office put out a seven-page report Friday. It reads like a government horror story, though we can’t recommend reading it for fun.
The department’s computer system was developed in 1993. Yes, it’s that old. Old technology can work. It’s just not as flexible. The system relies on an old computer language called COBOL. It can be hard to find people in information technology who already know it. The department was so daunted by the task of reprogramming the system to waive what’s known as the waiting week so people could get unemployment benefits sooner, it initially said it wasn’t going to do that.
The department did have the money to start updating the system — in 2009! In the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, the federal government gave the department $85.6 million in what are commonly called modernization funds. The department kicked off several information technology projects during the 2009-11 biennium. It’s one thing to start projects. It’s quite another to carry them out effectively.
In the 2011-13 biennium, the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office released an audit of the problems with the department’s computer system. The system was too difficult to update. And many changes had to be manually entered in the system. Those problems led to about $56 million in overpayment of unemployment benefits in 2010 and 2011. So it is not as if the problems with the department’s system had not been publicized.
The Employment Department’s next budget request was oddly for things other than the benefit information system. And even those projects were then put on hold, delayed or stopped. The agency’s chief information officer resigned. The resignation was at about the same time an internal audit of the department’s information technology department criticized it for a deficient structure. Many projects were even being undertaken without required approval from the state’s chief information officer.
The resignation is part of a pattern of turnover of key staff — information technology project members and agency leadership — that repeats again and again even including this year. That has made progress and prioritization difficult. You can see it in the agency’s next budget request in 2012. Even after the audit, the next request was again for technology projects other than the benefit system.
In 2013, Cover Oregon failed. That was the health insurance exchange website flop that cost the state about $300 million. That incident was not related to the employment department. The failure rippled through state government, though, leading to a needed, new heightened oversight of information technology projects. The employment department continued to have a hard time moving forward because of more leadership changes. To make matters worse, the department had a security breach in 2014 which led to the release of the confidential information of 800,000 Oregonians.
We could go on. But you get the idea. As we said, the money has been available. The agency has lacked the leadership, organizational stability and technical expertise to upgrade its systems. Does it have it now? We hope so.
New computers would not have solved all the department’s problems. Even states with updated unemployment computer systems have labored with the spike in unemployment claims from the pandemic. But it has made Oregon’s situation worse.
Legislators and the governor are supposed to be the ones providing oversight of how the state spends money. They failed to adequately monitor and question the performance of the state’s employment department. And Oregonians who are out of work are suffering more because of that.