Funding: The essential ingredient to successful digital modernization

Several weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Labor completed a process which provided hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to state governments to support the modernization of their Unemployment Insurance systems.

This funding, provided in the wake of the pandemic which saw many state UI systems buckle under the strain of increased demand for benefits, is an important tool being used by the Department of Labor’s Office of Unemployment Insurance Modernization. That office has been working with states since the pandemic to enhance their UI systems, and upgrade technology to better ensure the timely delivery of benefits when they are needed.

To be sure, the Office of Unemployment Insurance Modernization is filled with talented individuals with deep experience in legacy systems modernization, human-centered design, DevOps, and software development. This office has developed some extremely promising approaches to UI system modernization and shared these approaches with states to help them update their systems in advance of the next crisis that may test them. But the funding that was provided through the American Rescue Plan to assist states is the essential ingredient in these efforts.

This isn’t the only recent example where the issue of adequate funding has been shown to be a critical part of efforts to update legacy government systems and improve services provided by agencies. Earlier this year, the Department of Justice released a report to Congress and the President on the progress being made by agencies to comply with the requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and found that many agencies are still lacking. One of the main impediments identified in the report that is hampering agency efforts to adopt more accessible digital solutions and websites is a lack of adequate funding.

Based on the self-reported metrics, CFO Act agency Section 508 Programs continue to experience volatility in staffing which may impact an agency’s ability to operate an effective [accessibility compliance] program.

Section 508 Report to Congress and the President

In a promising step that underscores the need for adequate funding to support important agency digital modernization efforts, the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) recently put out a call for applications to support implementation of the The 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience (IDEA) Act. Enacted in 2018, this law requires federal agencies to enhance their online services and digital communication to be more user-friendly, accessible, and secure. It encourages the use of emerging technologies to streamline government processes, enhance accessibility for individuals with disabilities, and prioritize a consistent, user-centric digital experience across all federal websites and services. The ultimate aim of the law is to make government services more efficient and user-friendly.

Specifically targeting IDEA Act implementation for TMF funding recognizes the importance that adequate funding plays in successful digital modernization efforts. Even with a political or legal mandate in place to bring agency systems up to date, a lack of adequate funding can hamper the important work of digital modernization.

Many of the systems that are most in need of upgrading and enhancing are those that have suffered from years and years of underinvestment. Paying down the mountain of technical debt that has accumulated over the years will take time. And, most importantly, it will take adequate funding.

In every way, the work of the Department of Labor’s Office of Unemployment Insurance Modernization should act as a blueprint for how we pursue digital modernization efforts around critical public benefits. And if we care about the success of these efforts, we should fund them appropriately.