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When the State of Vermont talks to us about technology, the need to upgrade, and the potential for efficiency it summons memories of past and current technology failures; for example, Vermont Health Connect debacle half a decade ago, and the Department of Labor’s breach that is ongoing. The ride has been anything but smooth, and the experiences have not instilled much confidence.

These failures notwithstanding, the state is in the first stages of a proposed five-year, one-billion dollar project to upgrade the state’s information technology system.

Evenly split that’s $200 million a year for the next five years. For comparisons, that’s a little less than Vermont spent just to put the Vermont Health Connect experiment in place; which, begs the question; how many ways could this go wrong?

It invites a pause to think this could happen again, that we could make mistakes of that magnitude and have little to show for it. Which is why the Scott Administration, along with the blessing of key legislators, is proposing to bring all of the projects under one “all inclusive technology fund,” taking the projects out of the capital fund, and establishing a separate revenue fund to pay for it.

That’s a good start.

Push back would be understandable; most of us aren’t connected enough with state government to know the importance of such an effort. It you don’t know, it’s easy to dismiss its importance. If it’s not relevant to your daily life, then perhaps you’d prefer it to be spent differently, like lowering taxes, or cleaning up the lake, or bailing out the state college system. $200 million a year is a lot of cash and it could meet a lot of needs.

But, like the state’s underfunded pension crisis, we’ve been talking about this very need for decades and, yet, we’ve done nothing. The state of Vermont’s technology is almost third-world. The recent data breech with the state’s labor department sending out flawed unemployment claims, etc? Yes, human error was involved. But the humans are working on computers that were installed the first year Vermont’s Patrick Leahy went to Washington. That was 1974.

It’s remarkable the state can find people to operate systems that ancient.

Efficient? In what universe?

How many people does the state employ who could be doing something more productive?

A lot.

Spending money to upgrade state government’s information technology may sound banal; it’s anything but. If the follow-through is there, it may be one of the most important steps the state has taken in a generation. It’s only when all the projects are gathered under the same tent that we can really understand the full potential of what a coordinated communication system could be. There is every chance that done correctly the improved efficiencies [along with better outcomes] could, over time, generate enough savings to pay for a significant percentage of the cost.

There is a big IF in all this. The challenge is that the public doesn’t understand the problem or the potential. This is all insiders’ stuff and it always has been. The difference today is that we have the ability to share information and to do it quickly and comprehensively. Both the executive and legislative branch have to take it upon themselves to tell the story, to explain real life connections between the public and the government they depend upon.

Without this narrative, even if the projects are agreed upon and funded, they will fall short of their potential. That’s a lot of money to spend and to fall short.

by Emerson Lynn

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