04.27.20

Peters, Colleagues Push for Access to Federal Digital Resources Aid State and Local Government’s Coronavirus Pandemic Response

DETROIT, MI – U.S. Senator Gary Peters (MI), Ranking Member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, joined his colleagues to call for additional resources for state and local governments to upgrade their outdated technology as they face challenges processing increased unemployment claims, small business loans and other emergency assistance during the Coronavirus pandemic. Many state and local governments have been overwhelmed by unprecedented demand as residents seek aid, and have limited resources to upgrade or improve their outdated technology. Michigan has been particularly hard-hit by the Coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout, with more than 1 million residents filing for unemployment assistance since March 15th.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed state and local government benefits systems due to unprecedented numbers of applications and outdated systems. More than 22 million Americans have filed unemployment claims in the past four weeks alone,” the Senators wrote. “News reports abound showing hours-long hold times for Americans seeking assistance with unemployment claims, small business loans and grants, and other emergency programs. These federal programs, which are administered by the states, are of the utmost importance to American workers and businesses. They must be able to serve this skyrocketing need, per Congressional intent in the CARES Act.”

In a letter to Congressional leaders, Peters and his colleagues pushed to make federal digital resources – like the United States Digital Service (USDS) and the Technology Transformation Service (TTS) – more readily available to state and local governments struggling to meet increased demands on their limited technology systems as part of future Coronavirus response legislation. The resources would be made available to help states acquire new technology products and services and bolster the technological workforce in state and local governments as they work to distribute or facilitate Coronavirus aid to constituents.

Text of the letter is copied below and available here:

April 22, 2020

Dear Majority Leader McConnell, Minority Leader Schumer, Speaker Pelosi, and Minority Leader McCarthy:

We urge you to include targeted funding and regulatory changes to allow state and local governments to access federal digital resources, which can provide critical aid to overburdened state assistance programs, in any upcoming legislation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

As you know, the COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed state and local government benefits systems due to unprecedented numbers of applications. More than 22 million Americans have filed unemployment claims in the past four weeks alone. News reports abound showing hours-long hold times for Americans seeking assistance with unemployment claims, small business loans and grants and other emergency programs. These federal programs, which are administered by the states, are of the utmost importance to American workers and businesses. They must be able to function and serve this skyrocketing need.

Many states manage applications and distribute support using 40-year-old legacy software systems. Only a relatively small number of technical experts have the skills needed to quickly scale these systems to handle the flood of COVID-19 related applicants. For example, the governor of New Jersey recently put out an urgent call for COBOL programmers, a language that was first developed in 1959 and has been considered obsolete for decades. Volunteer and private business efforts around the country have responded quickly and admirably, but more help is required. These are complex systems that require not only deep technical knowledge but also extensive experience with government software.

Fortunately, a number of resources exist within the federal government that should be extended to help beleaguered states. The United States Digital Service (USDS) within the Executive Office of the President, for example, was created specifically to be an agile team of technologists to help other parts of the federal government. Along with making government services easier to use, USDS has a history of saving taxpayers money by reducing agency costs. The Technology Transformation Service (TTS) within the General Services Administration (GSA) offers digital services and products across the federal government with the mission to transform how the government uses technology. In particular, TTS’s in-house consulting office, 18F, often partners with federal agencies to help them build or buy digital services and products.

Unfortunately, both the USDS and the TTS are hindered by regulatory hurdles that significantly slow down or prevent them from supporting state and local governments. For TTS, the current rules require complex agreements that often take three to four months to negotiate. In addition, federal rules prevent states from using the best-in-class digital products developed by TTS without an extensive waiver process. During this national emergency, when speed is vital for millions of Americans, this red tape is preventing the federal government’s skilled technologists from helping the state and local agencies that need them most.

In order to allow states and local governments to benefit from the federal government’s technical expertise and resources, we request the inclusion of the following in the next COVID-19 legislation.

USDS:

  • Provide a $50 million emergency appropriation to the USDS to allow it to hire additional skilled technologists who immediately could begin to serve their country.
  • Ensure these funds are specifically targeted for USDS support of state and local governments use of technology.
  • Waive or significantly streamline any restrictions on USDS to work with state and local governments.

TTS:

  • Provide a $25 million emergency appropriation to the Federal Citizen’s Services Fund.
  • Ensure these funds are specifically targeted to the TTS for support of state and government use and purchase of technology.
  • Ensure these funds are specifically targeted to the TTS for support of state and government use and purchase of technology.
  • Waive or significantly streamline any restrictions on TTS to work with state and local governments including restrictions on funding sources, signatory requirements and acquisitions support.
  • Waive restrictions on states and local governments from being able to purchase the products created by the federal government.
  • Encourage TTS (and GSA as a whole) to prioritize COVID-19 related projects including those with state customers.

State and local governments need help so they can distribute aid to Americans, and the federal government has the resources to provide this support. Thank you for your attention to this important matter, and we stand ready and willing to assist as appropriate.

###