Now that the federal government, through the Department of Labor (DoL), has committed to investing $ 2 billion in stimulus funds to strengthen Unemployment Insurance (UI) systems in states besieged by the surge in Unemployment claims due to the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government and state officials discussed how those efforts will be carried out during a panel discussion at MeriTalk’s State Tech Vision virtual program on September 15.
The State Tech Vision conference – the first in a series planned by MeriTalk – remains available for viewing on demand.
Rick Kryger, deputy IT director at the Department of Labor, Scott Sanders, executive director of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies (NASWA) and Gary Markham, vice president, Integrity Global Security, joined me on the panel.
With a few exceptions, state and local governments began their current fiscal year on July 1, and most are still working on how this new federal money will be allocated to IT investments, especially for the modernization of the user interface system.
The Sanders organization, NASWA, has a unique perspective as its members include heads of state agencies responsible for managing unemployment systems across the country.
“Unemployment Insurance (UI) programs are a partnership between the federal government and the state based on law passed many years ago,” he said. “In the beginning, there were actually supplementary budget requests where states could ask the Ministry of Labor to help them finance their IT systems,” the former director of the labor agency said. artwork from Indiana.
The Department of Labor also awarded consortium grants when the agency wanted multiple states to come together in one system. “States, by and large, have tried to fund IT from their UI administrative dollars that come from the federal government, but that usually doesn’t cover enough to kick off a new system, as we all know that systems don’t come cheap, ”he said. “And states therefore needed additional funds.”
States typically receive what is called a core funding allowance from the Department of Labor to fund their unemployment insurance programs. Unfortunately for states, this base has remained stable over the past 10 years.
“With the cost of inflation and lump-sum funding, state UI teams are usually starting to eat into their operation’s budget, and that’s why I think before the pandemic most agencies were probably at their lowest level of employment, ”Sanders said.
“So obviously when the tsunami of claims hit, being able to accelerate the expansion of their systems became quite a challenge,” he continued. “And I have to say that I know that at least during the pandemic the US Department of Labor has done a great job providing funds to improve integrity and fight fraud, but part of that is when your staff is weak, it is difficult to put all hands on the bridge.
Kryger of DoL agreed, saying, “This has been a huge challenge for states and we have to recognize it.” He continued, “These are state-run programs, and let me start by acknowledging all the hard work that states and industry partners have put in, especially during the pandemic.”
The Ministry of Labor has traditionally provided state governments with oversight, policy and direction, as well as financial assistance through grants for primarily administrative support, as well as additional assistance for modernizing computer systems. However, this IT support has not been as extensive as the categorical IT funds provided, for example, by agencies of the Federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Rather, the majority of state unemployment insurance funding comes from the unemployment insurance tax programs that the states administer themselves.
“So it’s probably a little different from some other federal programs,” Kryger said. “Of course, especially during the pandemic, we have tried to increase financial support and grants for things like fraud prevention, because we know that has been a really big challenge.”
Cybersecurity, anti-fraud imperatives
Cyber security is an issue closely related to user interface systems, and Integrity Global Security’s Markham spoke about the impact federal funding could have in strengthening cyber defenses.
“When we start to invest money in things and we start to identify what we are trying to protect, if we are just investing money, it really doesn’t help,” he said. he declares. What is really needed is an organized, ready-made plan to identify the key elements that need to be protected.
“One of the biggest mistakes people make is just spending a lot of money on it, especially after a cyberattack, and especially a successful cyberattack,” Markham said. “What ends up happening is all you do is put bandages on the problem.”
What is needed instead is to have an organized effect, an organized plan and a way to attack the security problem so that these types of events can be avoided in the future. “This is where organizations need to start shifting their focus and funds toward preventing future vulnerabilities from cyber attacks,” Markham said.
“Right now we’re so focused on responding to everything that’s going on there,” he said. “There is no time and no money to spend on prevention, so this is really where I think the biggest benefit will come from is to start working on prevention, rather than on the reaction.”
Who gets the money?
I asked DoL’s Kryger for a rundown of what every NASWA member wants to hear: how the Department of Labor plans to allocate the $ 2 billion in stimulus funds to state unemployment insurance systems. and related fields.
“That’s really the $ 2 billion question we get asked quite frequently,” he replied. “In the last two weeks alone, the Ministry of Labor has issued a memorandum on this specific subject. Obviously, there has to be direct aid to states, and we place a strong emphasis on fraud prevention.
The DoL also recently awarded general purchasing contracts that states can exploit to impersonate, to ensure that the people making the claims are who they say they are. In addition, there are direct grants to states.
“However, we also want to look at different approaches here,” Kryger said. “Where is there commonality, where is there the ability to develop common IT systems in a modular fashion, which can be adopted by states,” he asked, indicating that the DoL is rethinking its IT support approach. “It’s a problem of close partnership with states, because you can’t just say this is the solution,” he said. “You really have to work in partnership and make sure you get to the right goal. “
Regarding the DoL allocation, Sanders from NASWA was more specific.
“There is about $ 140 million for fraud prevention and $ 260 million for improving fairness awareness and customer service, which I think is essential. States have been stretched and need to improve this overall experience for applicants, ”he said.
Apparently, the plan for the remainder of the DoL’s $ 2 billion allocation to states is still being worked out.
In conclusion, I asked Sanders of NASWA – given the critical nature of the state’s unemployment insurance systems, and the problems and even the tragedy that can and has occurred due to the challenges of the program unemployment insurance – what he would like to tell DoL secretary Marty Walsh if he was on our State Tech Vision panel.
“Well, I think, first of all, one size doesn’t fit all,” Sanders replied. “I think one of the things we need to work on is to find components of the user interface system that we can potentially exploit, and put it in place and have states test it and plug it in, s ‘they think it fits the best. their system.
And he admitted it would be a real challenge to convert the UI systems of 53 states and territories into something new. What is needed is strategic mapping, identifying system assets, and then assessing what is working well and what is not.
“Like I said at the start, this is really a partnership between the federal government and the state,” Sanders said. “It’s important to make sure that the opinions of the states are present as well as those of the federal government, and to really find those components that are really plug and play, to really be able to improve the system and put some sort of recognition fraud on the system. front-end. It would probably be one of the first steps I like to see.