Exploding demand for government assistance at nearly every level has strained many old technology systems to the point of crashing, causing millions of Americans nightmares. Any startup would dream of the hockey-stick traffic spikes experienced by state unemployment pages or by the federal Small Business Administration (SBA) since mid-March, but the current crisis provides another harsh reminder that governments across the country need to modernize their technical infrastructure if they want to handle disasters competently.
Americans of every background have turned to the government for relief, with unemployment claims expected to surpass 20 million in April. This new reality is reflected in the graph below, with employment sites experiencing a deluge of unprecedented traffic in March. In New Jersey, for example, the Governor issued an appeal for COBOL engineers [a programming language developed in the late 1950s/early 1960s] to help fix its broken website. Meanwhile, in Florida, residents are being advised to revert to paper applications after the state’s website went down.
As one of the Americans currently waiting in the SBA loan breadline, I have wasted countless hours in the past week on government sites waiting for pages that struggled to load......some applicants have had their personal identifiable information exposed due to technical errors.
The fledgling launch of the Payment Protection Program on April 3rd, enacted as part of the Two Trillion Dollar CARES Act, continues to be stymied by outages that make it difficult for banks to even process loan documents.
The graph above confirms that there are millions of other small business owners who are on a similar roller-coaster, with no discernable start or endpoint and zero transparency regarding how long this ride will last.
In comparison, popular food delivery sites like Instacart or Doordash have experienced similar traffic spikes during this crisis, as the graph below explains, but their services actually work.
These types of technology companies have been increasingly targeted as pariahs by a bipartisan array of DC interest groups. Critics have argued that instead of delivering the 1960s-era promises of flying cars and moon vacations, the brightest minds of the Gen-X and millennial cohorts spent their time building frivolous apps that offer no societal value.
If anything, the past few weeks have revealed that the gig-economy and food delivery jobs dismissed before the crisis are the only lifeline serving the skeletal remains of the restaurant and broader service industry. Tech companies, big and small alike, have enabled a considerable portion of the workforce to shift fully-remote in a way that was unimaginable 15 years ago. Small businesses on the brink of shuttering and millions of workers filing for unemployment lament their inability to get a clear answer about when the financial relief promised by the government will hit their bank accounts, not their lack of a flying car or moon vacation.
Setting aside ideological debates about state capacity, it should not be unreasonable to expect government sites to work. The disastrous rollout of the Obamacare website in October 2013, along with nearly $1 Billion in additional costs required to rebuild it after its initial crash, underscores the bipartisan challenge modernizing American’s IT infrastructure continues to present.
Organizations like the United States Digital Service and the newly deployed United States Digital Response are on the frontlines of offering rapid technical assistance. State and federal services that are likely to experience traffic spikes should turn to these resources for site reliability engineering support and other technical help. Proactive auditing of systems before crises emerge is needed to ensure government infrastructure uses the same modern technology large companies have leveraged to great success. Especially important is the deployment of technological infrastructure with low overhead during down times but can scale up near-instantly without human intervention during times of stress, otherwise known as serverless applications or hosting.
The Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act, which was enacted in December 2017 by President Trump, has the potential to catalyze critical federal infrastructure upgrades by providing the required funding and senior-level oversight. States across the country should adopt a similar approach, as competent technical leadership and resources are clearly needed.