By Guy Page
Distressed by Vermont’s failure to promptly process pandemic-related unemployment insurance (UI) applications? Blame it on Idaho.
Three years of hard work by Vermont DOL and Agency of Digital Services UI and computer experts went down the toilet earlier this year when Gov. Phil Scott pulled the plug on Vermont’s role in a multi-state UI benefits and tax upgrade called the Internet Unemployment System Consortium.
In 2017 a team of Vermont DOL and IT professionals began working with their peers in several other states, with Idaho taking the lead role. Their goal: share resources to develop an internet-based UI alternative to mainframe computer data storage and use. A 2018 UI trade newsletter predicted optimistically Vermont would be ready for prime-time by 2019.
It never happened. As Gov. Scott said at a press conference Monday, April 20, “it wasn’t working out at all.”
“Idaho was the lead on it. Once they dropped out, North Dakota came in,” Gov. Scott said. “ We weren’t getting the results we wanted out of this, it wasn’t working out at all….. I made the decision, it seems like two years ago, but it was probably two months ago, that I decided to pull the plug on it. Then this pandemic hit.”
Agency of Digital Services Secretary John Quinn’s provided more detail: “The underlying issue is that Idaho is not willing to give up intellectual property rights of the system being developed, and they will not hesitate to act in the best interest of their state regardless of the effect on the consortium or partner states,” he explained to Vermont Daily earlier this week (see below).
From Quinn’s perspective, the timing of the consortium’s collapse couldn’t have been worse. Worrying about the aging DOL mainframe computer ability to handle the pandemic’s unexpected torrent of UI applications “kept me awake at night,” he told the House Energy & Technology Committee April 1.
As it turns out he was right to worry. Despite last-minute hiring and a full-court press by DOL, many Vermonters who had never before needed UI found themselves applying after the governor issued his executive orders. For many the application experience was long and frustrating – to be followed by days and even weeks with no check in the mail. Friday April 17 a frustrated Gov. Scott announced that anyone still not cleared for benefits by the weekend would be mailed a $1200 check, drawn from the state treasury, on Monday. The governor personally guaranteed the darn check was finally in the mail, carrying totes of them to the post office himself.
Nevertheless for him, many legislators on the receiving end of angry phone calls, and especially distressed Vermonters themselves, the episode was an example of how state government should not serve its citizens.
Secretary Quinn explained why the consortium failed in a Monday, April 21 email to Vermont Daily:
The US Department of Labor (USDOL) has provided funding to states to form consortiums that will modernize the unemployment insurance systems from decades-old mainframe systems to shared, modern technology.
Vermont (VT) partnered with Idaho (ID) and, initially, Iowa in the iUS consortium to leverage and build upon Idaho’s iUS (Internet Unemployment System). Idaho developed the first version of the iUS benefits system with state staff and has been adding modules to meet their and partner states’ needs. Iowa left the consortium early on due to concerns over Iowa’s ability to support the underlying .net technology (vs. the Java platform they were using). North Dakota (ND) joined the consortium in the past few years as they recognized this was the most cost-effective manner to update their own legacy systems.
VT and ND have been beholden to partner state Idaho as both VT and ND do not have the internal development staff to build their own systems. Idaho has been willing to collaborate with VT and ND who pay for Idaho resources involved with system development. Yet, as ID is a sovereign state, VT and ND have little to no recourse to hold ID accountable for the quality or content that is developed nor the timeline in which it is delivered.
There have been serious challenges related to 1) consortium and system governance; 2) communication, documentation, and long-term planning; and, 3) the quality and sustainability of what ID is developing and delivering. The underlying issue is that ID is not willing to give up intellectual property rights of the system being developed, and they will not hesitate to act in the best interest of their state regardless of the effect on the consortium or partner states.
VT reported these challenges to USDOL which, in turn, asked the consortium to address how these issues could be resolved. The consortium states were not able to agree on a path forward. As a result, the Governors from ID, ND, and VT came together to discuss the consortium and once again discuss whether there was a path forward that would work for all consortium members. In the end, the three governors decided to Jointly dissolve the consortium and pursuing another solution. ID, ND, and VT were dissolving the consortium when COVID-19 took priority.
Clearly Gov. Scott sees the consortium effort, though a failure, as a valuable learning experience for the future. It’s possible Vermont will start over with North Dakota, he said Monday, adding: “We will pick up the pieces once this is over. We may learn something as a result of what we’re doing in this pandemic to guide us into what our needs are in the future.”
Read more of Guy Page’s reports.