May 26, 2024


Super Technology

Missouri’s ancient computer systems are running on fumes. Here’s how to upgrade them

Missouri’s computers and information technology systems are growing old, and must be fixed or replaced.

“There are tremendous concerns regarding our IT throughout state bureaucracy,” state Rep. Doug Richey recently told Missourinet. “We have some departments that are still working with systems that are COBOL.”

For young whippersnappers unfamiliar with COBOL, it’s a 60-year old protocol for programming computers. It’s still with us — in fact, technicians who understand COBOL are in high demand, because some state governments use it.

But in a world where cellphones are outdated every 18 months, and when computer systems are routinely threatened by ransomware and other malicious hacking attempts, Missouri — like other states — must move beyond patching up old systems and develop a modern, hardened, interconnected computer network.

Independence faced a ransomware attack last year. Similar attacks are likely in the future.

That’s why it’s encouraging that state Rep. Richey wants a hearing later this month on using federal COVID-19 relief funds to rebuild Missouri’s IT systems. The Excelsior Springs Republican says he wants a plan by January for replacing much of the state’s computer architecture.

“There are solutions that exist that would simplify this for Missouri,” he said.

That system should include modern programming and database management. Kansas received understandable criticism last year when its unemployment computers, also based on COBOL, collapsed. It wasn’t as noticeable, but Missouri’s unemployment systems were also pushed to the brink.

But the problem extends far beyond one state department. Missouri’s Information Technology Services Division oversees computer operations of more than a dozen state departments, including Social Services, the Department of Corrections, and Health and Senior Services, including Medicaid.

But the Department of Transportation has its own IT unit. So does the legislature, and the courts. The attorney general has yet another IT group.

As each of these systems has aged, computer technicians have cobbled together programs and digital architecture unique to the challenges of each department or division. Those one-off solutions are harder to maintain, and often make it difficult for computers to talk to each other when necessary.

Now cyberthreats exist that could bring parts of the system crashing down, delaying needed benefits for hundreds of thousands of Missourians.

No one yet knows how much all of this will cost. But Missouri has a record surplus, and the promise of additional dollars from Washington for COVID-19 relief. Using those funds for one-time expenses such as a computer overhaul makes infinitely more sense than cutting taxes, or using the federal money to defray operating costs.

And Missouri shouldn’t wait to spend the money, either. Kansas was supposed to upgrade its computers years ago, but put it off in the face of budget shortfalls caused by an ill-considered tax experiment. When the crunch came in 2020, the computers had to be fixed on the fly.

A computer overhaul won’t be easy. Competing demands and overlapping needs will take time to sort out, and technology is always changing. This process can’t be finished overnight.

But Rep. Richey’s suggestions are good. In mid-July, we hope he can convince his colleagues to make IT improvements a top priority in the state.

If he could just keep his hands off the Kansas City Police Department.