In COVID relief, lawmakers look to help states with legacy IT
The crush of applicants for unemployment benefits and other state-based social programs during the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed serious weaknesses in legacy technology systems at the state level.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers is urging House leaders to include funding for states to modernize their technology infrastructure with an eye to a cloud-first approach, shared services that deliver functionality to cities and towns and some oversight of state technology plans as a condition of receiving funding.
Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.) is circulating a draft of a “dear colleague” letter, and Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) have already signed on. The letter, which was obtained by FCW, urges members to ask House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to make funding for tech at the state level part of the next COVID-19 relief bill. A follow-on bill to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act could total as much as $1.5 trillion.
None of the signers is a stranger to tech issues. Gallagher is a co-chair of the Solarium Commission, which was chartered by Congress to develop forward-looking cybersecurity policies. Langevin is a Solarium commissioner and has a cybersecurity leadership post on the House Armed Services Committee. Richmond is chairman of the Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Innovation Subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee, and McCaul, a former chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, was a co-sponsor of the legislation that chartered the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
While the primary focus will be on injecting state and local governments with funding for social services, lawmakers are increasingly concerned with how those services are delivered and how recipients can access benefits.
“As we consider additional legislative measures to address the urgent needs of our citizens, we encourage you to consider the digital infrastructure on which so many of our constituents rely to access vital government service,” the letter states.
The letter points to a key problem that has already been observed with tens of millions of Americans seeking unemployment benefits within a very short timeframe. “Outdated digital infrastructure means that services don’t scale, so rapid relief is unavailable to large numbers in times of crisis,” the lawmakers state.
The lawmakers haven’t arrived at a price tag for the measure, but they’re hoping to get key principles enshrined in legislation: flexibility to allow states to apply fixes where they’re needed most, prioritizing cloud-based solutions, requiring state-level CIOs to submit plans for tech upgrades that include cybersecurity risk assessments, conducting modernization that extends availability of services to municipal governments and taking a forward-looking approach that isn’t just about a quick fix to a balky or out-of-support system.
“Some portion of funding should be available to meet these immediate equipment and license needs while the bulk is available for more substantive projects that will ensure we can withstand this public health crisis and the resultant economic downturn,” the letter states.
This isn’t the first time lawmakers have suggested a tech modernization response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) have offered a $500 million unemployment systems support bill that includes IT modernization. Last month, five technology trade groups wrote to legislative leaders suggesting an injection of new funds for federal, state and local IT to modernize legacy systems.
Mike Hettinger, a former senior House staffer who lobbies on behalf of technology clients, said the letter reflects a wider range of lawmakers taking technology modernization issues more seriously.
“I’m seeing a change of attitude,” Hettinger told FCW. “I can go up on the Hill and talk about telework and VPNs and they’re not going to look at me like I have three heads any more. Now everyone knows the challenges we face.”
Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.
Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.