1980s computers plague government agencies

Dan Cassuto reports.

SEATTLE -- The software running Washington state government is old.

It's so old, some of the people using it weren't even born when it was built.

It's so old, it's slow, expensive, and becoming more difficult to maintain.

Government agencies rely on more than 600 pieces of outdated software, according to a new report by the state's chief information officer. That's roughly one-third of all government systems, including software that collects taxes, registers cars and schedules court cases.

The report estimates it could cost up to $2.8 billion to upgrade systems to modern-era technology, which is underway in some cases.

The state court system's software was built in the late 1970's. The Department of Revenue uses software built in the late 1980's and early 1990's to scrutinize tax returns.

The Department of Licensing relies on software designed in 1989 to process vehicle registration. It's used every day by agents at private vehicle licensing shops statewide. The software, built in 1989, does not have a back button. If agents make a mistake, or customers don't know they need to tell agents certain pieces of information, the entire transaction must start from the beginning.

That's 15 minutes of lost time.

On the back end, programmers also have a difficult time maintaining the system.

Each new specialty license plate requires 18 months of complex behind-the-scenes computer coding on a language known as COBOL.

"Old systems can slow down government," said Rep. Zack Hudgins, a Democratic lawmaker who heads the house technology committee. "It takes a lot of time and money to keep them updated."

Many young programmers don't know how to write COBOL code, since it's not taught regularly anymore. That means agencies struggle to find staff who can even work on maintaining their systems.

Zack Hudgins is proposing a bill that would pay college tuition if students agree to study COBOL and work for state agencies after graduating.

"It's a better investment," said Hudgins, "than continue to pay out-of-state consultants a lot of money to keep up these old systems."


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