Politics & Government

Aging technology could slow Kansas services, jeopardize data security. Fixes are costly

Patrons visit the counter at the Kansas Driver’s License office at Twin Lakes in 2011. Old technology systems could complicate getting a drivers license.
Patrons visit the counter at the Kansas Driver’s License office at Twin Lakes in 2011. Old technology systems could complicate getting a drivers license. The Wichita Eagle

The technology that makes Kansas government operate is outdated and deteriorating — and the state will have to spend millions to fix it.

Old systems could complicate getting a drivers license or paying taxes and in some cases could make data vulnerable.

More than half of the state’s technological foundation – its network infrastructure – has reached “end of life” status. Manufacturers no longer provide technical support.

The consequences of falling behind range from annoying to dangerous. On the mild side, breakdowns in aging systems take longer to repair, potentially creating a longer wait for the services you need.

The old technology “impacts the speed and availability of most citizen services,” said Courtney Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the Kansas Office of Information Technology Services. That includes vehicle registration, requests for public benefits and tax filings, she said.

“All of those different systems run on the same infrastructure,” Fitzgerald said.

Old systems also have security vulnerabilities that place data at risk.

For example, the system to determine Medicaid and welfare eligibility is out of compliance with federal security standards, which could affect federal funding. The company that operates the system, Dublin-based Accenture, has told officials it won’t be held responsible for data breaches caused by outdated hardware.

Teri Takai, director of the California-based Center for Digital Government, said investing in IT isn’t just about having the latest systems. “Not being able to upgrade and stay current is a cybersecurity risk because all of the technology companies have to continually upgrade their technology to protect against the ever-increasing threat,” she said.

And catching up will cost plenty, though no overall amount is available. Agencies seeking their own upgrades have a dozen active projects totaling more than $150 million and plans for more.

Kansas arrived at this critical moment after putting off IT work for years.

“The state’s IT environment did not get to its current condition overnight. Many decisions were made over the past decade when operating funds were scarce,” Lee Allen, the state’s chief information technology officer, said in a statement.

State agencies have historically managed their own IT systems, according to a quarterly summary of IT projects published by the Kansas Office of Information Technology Services. That meant separate hardware, software and tech workers for each agency. Maintaining all of these separate systems is now inefficient and unsustainable, the summary says.

The summary, published in May, describes in detail the needs facing Kansas. In addition to a dozen active projects, more than a dozen additional planned projects are estimated at about $26 million.

The active projects include $35 million in upgrades to the Medicaid and welfare eligibility program, called the Kansas Eligibility Enforcement System. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which oversees the system, said KEES is not aligned with security standards set by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“Federal funding from CMS will not be impacted unless we fail to complete our plan. Our plan is on track,” KDHE spokeswoman Ashley Jones-Wisner said in a statement, adding that KDHE has taken steps to mitigate the risks in the meantime.

Jones-Wisner wouldn’t provide a copy of Accenture’s notification, saying it was an internal document. The Eagle has requested the document under the Kansas Open Records Act.

Beyond fixing security problems, improving the KEES system will allow it to handle Medicaid expansion in Kansas if that occurs.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families wants a new system for evaluating whether children are in danger. A federal review found the agency’s current assessments are not always completed in a timely manner. The project will cost $831,553.

DCF also wants to overhaul its child welfare computer systems that use technology dating back to the 1980s. The IT projects summary says they’ve been “cobbled together” over the past 20 years. The overhaul should about $2 million.

DCF spokesman Mike Deines said the agency’s planned upgrades would allow it to go paperless in its child welfare work and stop agency workers from having to enter the same information into computers over and over.

“From a technology perspective, child welfare is currently split between a number of software systems, many of which are antiquated. Our data infrastructure must be more efficient and provide our employees and contractors with tools they need to do their jobs effectively,” Deines said.

Among other IT projects, the Kansas Office of Information Technology Services wants to use a “hybrid cloud” that could streamline IT across agencies. The $10 million project, which IT officials approved in December, is falling behind schedule.

IT consolidation reviewed

Kansas has been examining consolidating IT services to save money since at least 2011.

Consolidation often involves making sure multiple agencies can use the same systems, rather than each having their own. It can also include reducing the number of IT workers and outsourcing some IT services at a lower cost.

And it can make upgrading easier because there are fewer systems to maintain.

Executive-branch agencies now spend about $150 million a year on IT services and labor.

But an audit released in July shows the state won’t be able to save money even with aggressive consolidation. That’s because the costs of upgrading IT infrastructure will outweigh any savings.

“The current condition of core IT infrastructure … requires significant financial investment, whether the state consolidates IT services and staff or not,” Allen said in a letter to legislative auditors.

Auditors estimated that modernizing the infrastructure will ultimately cost an additional $2.6 million to $38.4 million a year depending on the level of consolidation and how many state employees are laid off in the process.

Laying off some 232 employees while consolidating the state’s information technology services could limit the annual cost increase to $2.6 million, but the amount grows if fewer workers are let go.

Allen calls the estimates “irresponsible and inaccurate” and warns past staff reductions have harmed the quality of services. He said the estimates were based on outdated personnel figures from 2016.

At the time, Kansas employed 791 IT workers. Now, it’s about 569. In effect, the state has already shed more than 200 IT workers.

“This reduction in staff prior to fully consolidating technology services has led to a decline in service levels, lower confidence in executive branch IT, and insufficient resources to address agency business needs,” Allen said in his response to the audit.

Auditors said the 2016 data was the most accurate information they had available.

Kansas is not alone in looking at consolidation and outsourcing. Every state is working to consolidate or has already done so, auditors said.

States are turning to outsourcing and consolidation because it requires less public funding, National Association of State Chief Information Officers director Doug Robinson said

“Now states are finally looking at this, and looking at more of a private sector model and saying, well, the lines of business or the divisions within these organizations, is it really in the best interest of the state and the taxpayers that everybody runs their own railroad?” Robinson said.

Past Kansas IT problems

Even as technology officials try to move closer to consolidation, the state has a fraught history with big IT projects and changes.

Auditors found state officials are concerned about the ability of the Office of Information Technology Services to successfully consolidate. While officials were satisfied with Allen, “they reported wariness about consolidation because they perceive OITS to have a poor track record with consolidation.”

And some IT projects have gone awry in the past.

KEES, the system that determines Medicaid eligibility, suffered from years of delays after the state signed a contract in 2011 with Accenture to produce the system. A project called KanLicense to modernize the storage of drivers license records also faced delays.

But no project drew more attention than efforts by the Department of Revenue to modernize tax processing systems and outsource its IT services. The agency outsourced 56 IT jobs to CGI, a Canadian technology company, as part of two no-bid contracts collectively worth more than $110 million.

Gov. Laura Kelly canceled the contracts earlier this year and the agency is now trying to hire back the workers.

Rep. Steve Huebert, a Valley Center Republican who is new to a legislative committee focused on IT, said technology needs should be met, but wants systems that will last whenever possible.

“Some people have to rush out and get the latest upgrade to an iPhone just because I guess they think it’s cool. But do they really need it? No,” Huebert said by way of analogy.

Rep. Jeff Pittman, a Leavenworth Democrat who sits on the IT committee, said Kansas has a tendency to outsource and added that it can be a good option.

“But we need to make sure we continue to do it right,” he said.

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.