As I See It: COBOL In The Time Of COVID
May 11, 2020 Victor Rozek
If you are retired, or currently not working, but happen to have outdated IT skills and want to Make America Great Again by going back to work and risking your life for the economy, your government has a deal for you.
Apparently, one of the inadvertent side effects of the current pandemic was to expose just how awful and antiquated the government’s computer systems are. In a country otherwise blessed with leading-edge innovation and unparalleled high-tech capability, COBOL is still being used – to a lesser or greater degree – to run the unemployment insurance programs in all but 16 states. Yes, it’s the same 60-year-old language you sharpened your programming teeth on, and the problem is not so much that it’s back, but that it never left. It’s still chugging along on mainframes that can be decades old, but with the influx of the desperately unemployed these ancient artifacts are overloaded and crashing all over the country. And many of those locations don’t have a lot of programmers who are COBOL competent.
So, ancient programmer, Uncle Sam wants you. (No, I take that back. Uncle Sam just wants the trappings of leadership but none of its responsibilities, so more accurately stated: Your governor wants you.)
Catherine Rampell, writing for The Washington Post, reports that New Jersey “has begged for volunteers still fluent in COBOL.” The begging came courtesy of Governor Phil Murphy after 362,000 residents applied for unemployment and his antiquated system started springing leaks. To their credit, volunteers responded. “Someone called me the COBOL King,” the governor quipped. “I’m not sure that was a compliment.”
Nor should it be. At some point when the pandemic subsides there will be a postmortem and someone has to ask the obvious question: How the hell did it come to this? Why are states and indeed the federal government – the Internal Revenue Service is apparently running a 52-year-old software system – entrusting critical functions to ancient technology?
Some governors like Brian Kemp, the somnambulist in Georgia who months into the pandemic claimed he didn’t know asymptomatic people were contagious, will, quite appropriately, proclaim ignorance. “Nobody told me,” they will say.
But in truth, just like the many warnings of the coming pandemic that were ignored by federal authorities, governors have long disregarded the need to upgrade their states’ IT infrastructure.
Since 2015 auditors have been warning Florida state officials that their systems were crumbling. In 2019, state auditors again warned newly-elected Governor Ron DeSantis that Florida’s unemployment website was a mess. But the governor couldn’t be bothered, and the following year DeSantis was probably too busy insisting Florida’s beaches remain open for Spring break to notice IT failures.
As a result, writes Rampell, “desperate Americans are standing in crowded lines to retrieve paper copies of forms necessary to get critical safety-net benefits. This is, of course, despite government stay-at-home orders.” In some locations, applicants are then asked to fax their information to state agencies. Ah, modernity.
Some states apparently have not noticed that most Americans have grown a fifth appendage called a “smartphone.” And, whether as a consequence of oversight or budget fight, have not become “mobile-enabled.” As a result, the roughly 25 percent of Americans who engage the world through their mobile device but don’t own a computer, are out of luck if they reside in these states. And, when the issue is survival, the inability to promptly and safely access government services can be devastating.
As we have seen at both the federal and state level, stupid and incompetent can be a deadly combination.
But even in the best of times, IT has a way of being perpetually consigned to the back burner. IT isn’t glamorous; it’s not a voter motivator. It’s hard to rile up your base to hate an old IBM mainframe and demand its replacement. Upgrades are complex, expensive, and apt to require extensive testing and customization. Bringing new systems online takes time and patience. Politicians who think primarily in election cycles have scant motivation to prioritize anything that doesn’t bring them reflected glory. Filling potholes is cheaper and easier than filling technology gaps. And, far more visible.
But there is another reason that goes to the heart of conservative politics. Years of attempting to shrink state and federal government to a size immersible in a bathtub, has resulted in a non-functional government – both unprepared and unaccountable. Or, as Rampell puts it: “Through a combination of benign neglect and anti-government malice, the technology used by state and federal agencies has been left to rot.”
Or rust. This is the exact opposite of the application modernization and digital transformation efforts that The Four Hundred has championed for decades.
For IT departments, and others providing public services, it’s a vicious cycle: Lack of funding eventually causes dysfunction; and dysfunction then creates the excuse for further cuts in funding.
“Somehow,” writes Rampell, “other countries’ governments are able to directly deposit relief funds into their citizens’ bank accounts within days. Here in the United States, we cheer when similar measures take the federal government ‘only’ weeks to execute – and that’s just for the first round of payments. Resignedly, we accept that some households could wait months. It feels like an achievement if the Small Business Administration’s loan portal simply stops crashing.”
But that’s what hollowed-out agencies and callous underinvestment in government has created: a nation that is response-impaired.
The Washington Post editorial board published a recent piece that acknowledged the role of neglected IT in the challenges now facing millions of people. “Americans are reaching for unemployment insurance and food assistance in record numbers and facing massive delays, due, in part, to computer systems in need of overhaul.”
I doubt that any of the economic stimuli packages will contain funding to upgrade decades-old technology. The states are on their own and with high unemployment and plunging tax revenues they will probably have to be content with advanced strategies like begging for COBOL expertise.
But it should be apparent to even the most ideological governors that they missed a window of opportunity to shore up the foundations of their own house before the quake hit. Should they seek sound advice on the subject, they need look no further than Jennifer Pahlka, former U.S. deputy chief technology officer, who said: “The best time to modernize essential government systems was 15 years ago. The second best time is now.”