Spotlight

Spotlight: Upgrading old IT crucial, expensive

By Jack Borbee

Vermont’s state internet technology (IT) resources have long been plagued by glitches, crashes, and difficult-to-navigate interfaces. But a renewed focus on modernizing the state’s IT system may be a step towards a solution for these recurring challenges.

Technology Troubles

Vermont’s government websites and resources have a long history of technological mishaps. Perhaps the most notable is the state’s primary health care exchange, Vermont Health Connect.

Initially marked by delays in its 2013 launch, the user experience for Vermont Health Connect (VHC) did not improve much more after that. The small business portal failed to work, massive backlogs accumulated for individuals seeking a change in circumstances, and the state auditor issued a scathing report on mishaps associated with VHC’s processing firm. All-in-all, it was a significant IT blunder that embarrassed the waning days of the Shumlin administration.

More recently, the state has continued to grapple with IT struggles. Last April, the state’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) system crashed as Vermonters were claiming UI benefits in unprecedented quantities. And just a month ago, the Vermont Department of Labor sent out tens of thousands of incorrect 1099 forms. Vermonters received forms that matched their first name–but had someone else’s incorrect Social Security numbers and tax information.

The Vermont Department of Labor website provides important information for those who may have been affected but this most recent data release. Meanwhile, Governor Scott has taken a three-pronged response to the issue, with a tactical team, new Deputy Commissioner at the Department of Labor, and a request for a performance audit.

Vermont State Auditor Doug Hoffer acknowledged to Vermont Daily that his team has been asked by the Governor to conduct a formal audit. Vermont Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington did not respond to a request for comment.

But the latest 1099 debacle is just a symptom of underlying issues with the state’s IT systems, which lawmakers and administration officials are now looking to address.

A “Down Payment” Towards Technology Modernization

In 2017, John Quinn of Berlin was appointed as Vermont’s Chief Information Officer. Later that year, Governor Scott issued an Executive Order consolidating the existing Department of Information and Innovation (DII) into a new and unified Agency of Digital Services (ADS) that Quinn was selected to lead as Secretary.

Previously, IT functions were spread out in multiple departments within state government. The centralization of IT efforts through ADS has helped reduce costs and improve services, according to ADS leadership. According to Jonathan Kelley, the Legislative Liaison for ADS, the consolidation effort has resulted in a total of $17 million in avoided costs, including $7.4 million in 2020 alone. 

Since the creation of ADS in 2017, Quinn has headed up IT management and security for the State of Vermont’s systems. More recently, Governor Scott proposed in his FY2022 budget a $53 million initiative that Quinn’s Agency will spearhead.

The initiative is referred to as the “Technology Modernization Fund.” It’s broad purpose is to upgrade platforms, improve security, and bolster systems throughout state government. 

Documents provided by ADS leadership detail the planned projects from the $53 million investment. They include improvements to the Department of Motor Vehicles mainframe, updates to forward-facing permit portals, upgrades to the Department of Human Resources tracking system, improvements to cybersecurity efforts, and more.

Among the list of a dozen projects includes an Unemployment Insurance modernization effort. The project is divided into five phases, with the first being a $3.5 million one-time investment from the new Technology Modernization Fund. Phase 1 will include upgrades to the 1980s-written system, such as improved portal integrations with the mainframe and a bolstered UI fraud reporting capacity. The full project is expected to be completed by FY2024.

Some lawmakers believe that the $53 million one-time appropriation is just a start. According to Senator Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), who heads up the Senate’s Institutions Committee which oversees major technological infrastructure projects, “The $53 million proposed for the Technology Modernization Fund is a good start, but keep in mind that the Governor made clear that it is only a ‘down payment.’  My response is that he is correct, this will likely be just the start of a necessary upgrade to the State’s IT systems.”

Benning is mindful of broader technological concerns, as well as recent security failures. He told Vermont Daily that the Capital Bill – the legislative vehicle for addressing these issues – is now within the Vermont House Committee on Institutions and Corrections. Chair Rep. Alice Emmons (D-Springfield) did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did Representative Tim Briglin (D-Thetford), chair of the House Committee on Energy and Technology.

Auditor Hoffer underscored the widespread nature of technological issues that will need addressing in the long term, noting that he has “found IT problems in most of the audits performed during my eight-year tenure.”

More To Do On the Horizon

The $53 million Technology Modernization Fund ‘down payment’ is just a stepping stone, as indicated by the Governor and Senator Benning. Indeed, within the ADS documents reviewed by Vermont Daily, another $21.8 million would see the projects to completion. However, even those estimates include operating expenses within just a five-year timeframe. It is uncertain how many more investments will be required after the five-year period

Technology Modernization Fund Major Projects

ProjectOne-Time Cost Contained In Technology Modernization FundRemaining Funding Required for Operating CostsEnd Date for Completion
DMV Core System Replacement$15 millionUnknownFY2025
DEC Permit Navigator $1 million$1.5 millionFY2023
NRB Permitting$500,000NoneFY2022
Human Capital Management & Budget — ERP Replacement $12.7 million$12 millionFY2024
Bright Futures Information System Replacement$4.5 millionNone ($2.2 million already received or budgeted)FY2024
AHS Integrated Eligibility$9.5 millionNoneFY2023
DOL FARS Replacement$2 million$1.3 millionFY2023
UI Modernization$3.5 million$3.1 millionFY2024
Joblink Replacement$1 million$2.4 millionFY2022
Network and Cybersecurity Upgrade$1.5 millionNoneFY2022
ACCD Grant Management System Replacement$1 million$400,000FY2023
State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs Case Management System*$430,000*$1.1 million*FY2023
TOTAL~$53 million~$21.8 million

*Estimates to be revised upwards

Whether the Vermont Legislature will accept the Governor’s proposed $53 million modernization fund – or adjust the amount – remains to be seen. Even more uncertain is how lawmakers will find additional funds for the operating expenses needed to keep these projects underway. Regardless, there is a clear consensus to address the state’s IT systems moving forward.

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