The Costs and Liabilities of Using Old Computers

The cost of replacing major government IT systems can be enormous, but the price tag might be even higher for keeping them running long past their prime. Take California, for instance. This summer, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger planned to pay state workers the federal minimum wage during California’s seemingly annual budget stalemate. But state Controller John Chiang asserted that the state’s Vietnam-era payroll system couldn’t process the temporary pay cut.

Granted, the issue is wrapped in politics — the Republican governor’s officials say Chiang, a Democrat, is exaggerating the problem — but there’s certainly some truth to the notion that 30- to 40-year-old computer systems struggle to keep up with changes demanded by political leaders. And there are probably more of these ancient government systems chugging away in agency back offices than state and local officials care to admit.

Dale Jablonsky, who until August was CIO of the California Employment Development Department (EDD), knows the situation all too well. The EDD runs California’s unemployment insurance program, where caseloads skyrocketed during the current recession. As the economic downturn deepened, Congress repeatedly extended the length of time individuals could draw unemployment benefits. In all, federal lawmakers approved seven benefit extensions since the recession began — and each was a nightmare for the EDD

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