State officials weren’t prepared to respond to the pandemic that dropped like a bomb on New Jersey and New York in early 2020. That’s understandable, since nothing like it had happened for a century and the world had completely changed since then.
But when they tried to respond to changing demands of the public in the crisis, soon it was clear New Jersey didn’t have the technology and work systems that are commonplace in business. Government computers were decades out of date, unable to handle changed or increased workloads. People couldn’t get the basic services they needed from the state, often to meet state requirements.
More than 2 million in New Jersey filed unemployment claims, far more than could be handled by the state Division of Unemployment Insurance using its 40-year-old computers running a code language written in 1959. Hundreds of thousands of people weren’t able to get the jobless benefits they had funded through their work, many claims problems took months to fix, and an unknown number of claimants never got their benefits. The division quits paying claims if a year has passed.
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Motor Vehicle Commission offices closed and needed services from them became unavailable. For months, many offices remained shut. They eventually reopened, but people had to stand in line for hours to take care of their driver’s licenses, vehicle registrations and such. Legislators have been forced to propose a law requiring Motor Vehicle Commission locations to provide in-person services to senior citizens and people with disabilities.
And the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency couldn’t get pandemic aid out to landlords or their tenants who were facing eviction.
After years of delays, states nationwide are rebuilding their government technology systems. Once-in-a-generation funding is available from pandemic relief and higher than expected tax revenues. An executive order issued in December by President Biden called for benefits enrollment to be streamlined.
Existing outdated information systems can cause ripple effects throughout public benefits systems, according to Jessica Kahn, a partner at consultancy McKinsey & Co. and former head of data and systems for Medicaid at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. For example, online benefits applications that are difficult to navigate can force applicants to call for help, overwhelming call centers already short-staffed.
The federal infrastructure program will include at least $100 million for New Jersey to expand high-speed internet connections and $17 million to protect its computer systems against cyberattacks. More of the $13.5 billion the state will get over the next five years under the federal infrastructure legislation should be available for modernizing its antiquated technology.
New Jersey already is part of a pilot federal program to improve its unemployment system, a targeted overhaul expected to be finished by the end of the year.
This month the Division of Unemployment Insurance announced a “new, simplified unemployment application, available online.” It has 15 steps: Read COVID-19–related FAQs; get your information ready; create an account; use DOL’s online tools; check your mailbox; read DOL’s instructions for claiming benefits; certify for your benefits on the right day and time; verify your identity; start your job search; explore training options; adjust your federal income tax withholding; add dependents to your claim, if they qualify; attend DOL scheduled appointments; get more help; get support when benefits end.
Even if this fix for the jobless benefits debacle is better than it looks, it won’t be part of a much-needed state government information system optimized to provide efficient and secure services.
Here’s an idea. New Jersey should make it possible for residents to establish their identity and enter their demographic and financial information just one time, and find out which of the state’s bewildering number of benefits programs they are likely to be eligible for. With their basic information already given, residents’ applications to specific programs should be easy.
The new state budget in July will easily be another record high for spending. New Jersey officials should use some of their extra billions to deploy the tools needed to serve the public much better.