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Fri., May 10, 2013

Editorial: Information systems need to be updated

If Washington citizens needed another reason to avoid the criminal justice system, the hacking of the state’s court computers might do the trick.

As many as 160,000 Social Security numbers and 1 million driver’s license numbers may be in the hands of the perpetrators who, at least in news accounts, have not been identified months after the breach, which was discovered in February, occurred. Only 94 of the individuals whose information was compromised have so far received notification of potential identity theft.

Ninety-four, out of 160,000.

State officials downplay the scope of the breach because other state agencies use a separate network. That’s no solace.

As an audit released Wednesday by state Auditor Troy Kelley makes clear, Washington’s information technology systems are badly outdated and mismatched. Agencies are working with computers and software decades old that vendors no longer support. Many have modified original software in response to evolving needs. Auditors found more than 100 customizations, some redundant.

Finding IT staff capable of caring for these Cenozoic systems has become a challenge – in a state with tens of thousands of software engineers.

The estimated cost of clearing away this mess is $178 million. The estimated benefits: $228 million, with the break-even point eight years out. Auditors acknowledge the costs may be higher.

The Department of Natural Resources, which consolidated three mainframe computer systems into one, offered some sobering comments in a letter to Kelley.

Although the quality of the information available improved substantially, the new system has not saved money.

“We question whether developing an integrated financial system will pay for itself,” says DNR Deputy Supervisor Lenny Young, who adds the department supports modernization despite its reservations.

The reality of the challenge has accomplished something rare as the Legislature prepares for a special session: The Senate, House and governor’s budgets include $2.4 million to begin the planning and implementation of an enterprise resource planning system that can re-integrate Washington’s software applications. A report would be due by year-end.

About half the states have already made the transition, and several others are in the process. Washington and Idaho are among the holdouts.

Obviously, the $2.4 million does not even constitute a down payment toward the eventual cost, which will be a stretch unless state revenues increase more than expected. To expedite the transition, some recommend financing a new system out of capital funds, rather than operating revenues. That would get the task done sooner, but information systems have a much shorter life than the roads and schools usually financed with bonds.

Best be careful.

With so many other demands for money – education, highways, social services – lawmakers and the governor will have to exercise some discipline if the computer overhaul is going to get done. As it must.

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