Key report puts the brakes on Vt. Labor Department computer system overhaul

Published: Jul. 21, 2021 at 5:57 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Fixes for Vermont’s outdated unemployment system may have to wait.

Lawmakers are mulling over funding a four-step plan but a key consultant says that investment should wait until the Scott administration comes up with a clearer plan.

Montpelier is moving along with replacing the Labor Department’s aging mainframe. The 50-year-old computer system drew the ire of tens of thousands during the peak of the pandemic. A tsunami of unemployment claims clogged up the system, bringing it to a screeching halt and thousands went weeks without income.

With a budget surplus and millions in federal cash in hand, the Scott administration wants to build a new computer system through a four-step plan.

Phase one is updating the system’s front end-- what people see when they login to the website.

Lawmakers first have to give the greenlight to $3.5 million. But a key report says not so fast.

“The latest effort is to get off the old system, get onto a new system that’s more sustainable, scalable and maintainable so that this state and other states don’t run into other problems in the future,” said Dan Smith of the Joint Fiscal Office, who is an IT consultant for legislative economists.

He says before lawmakers begin shelling out millions for a new website, the state needs to come up with a long term-plan for designing its system and prove that it has looked into other options.

“Have you documented it correctly? Is it defensible for other people? Have you looked at all of the other alternatives and shown why the path we’re taking is the best path?” Smith said.

Agency of Digital Services Secretary John Quinn agrees planning is important but he also says they don’t want to draw conclusions on what technology will look like down the road.

“Rather than build out a project plan for the next 10 years, get it approved and then change it every month down the road. We want to make sure we’re being agile and delivering products to the citizens as quickly as possible,” Quinn said.

The details of the other three phases of updating the unemployment computer are still to come but it’s expected to cost upward of $50 million.

It’s a process Smith says the state will have to navigate thoughtfully.

“The real measure of success for the first phase is it a better system from the user standpoint?” Smith said.

The Joint Information Technology Oversight Committee will meet next month to decide whether to give the new website the greenlight. That phase will take a year to stand up.

Depending on technology at the time, state leaders say the other three phases-- the bulk of the work-- could take over five more years.

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