Last week the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) announced a partnership with 18F, an office within the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services, to modernize its unemployment insurance (UI) system.

The partnership follows a long legislative process that approved the overhaul of the state’s UI system after complications about funding stalled a decision. DWD’s current system uses the 60-year-old COBOL language, and the outdated system caused public concern as the COVID-19 pandemic created an unprecedented number of unemployment claims.

Between March 2020 and January 2021, DWD received 8.8 million unemployment claims, which surpassed the total number of claims of the previous four years combined by 1.6 million, according to Gov. Tony Evers in his State of the State address.

In January 2021, Evers called a special session to help fix the state’s unemployment system. In his address, he acknowledged modernization should have happened sooner but that there was not another moment to waste.

“Since the beginning of this pandemic, we saw an unprecedented influx of unemployment claims,” Evers said. “It exceeded the number of claims even during the Great Recession.”

The state responded to the massive number of claims by increasing the size of its UI team, Evers said. State employees from other divisions or agencies were reassigned, and new workers were hired to help with the increased workload. The UI division had about 500 employees at the beginning of the pandemic and increased that number to over 1,800. DWD worked diligently to pay more than $4.6 billion in UI benefits to Wisconsin residents.

“But the bottom line is that our unemployment system isn’t designed to handle the massive numbers of modern days, which has contributed to delays in processing claims, required more time to implement new federal programs and made it harder to get benefits out the door,” explained Evers.

According to Evers, both Republicans and Democrats share the blame for the lack of upgrades to the antiquated system. For over a decade, legislators knew the system needed upgrades to be able to handle an economic crisis, but instead, the Legislature passed laws that made it more difficult for people to access this assistance. The COVID-19 pandemic brought matters to a turning point.

“This past year brought to bear the inaction of my predecessors and members of this and previous legislatures who avoided their responsibility for far too long,” Evers said in his address. “Well, I’ll tell you this: It’s gone on long enough.”

The UI project will have a tight timeline. A project of this type tends to take more than a year "to lay out the requirements," as stated by DWD Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek in a press release.

“The department is on an aggressive timeline to begin a full-scale modernization of the UI system, so we’ve worked to start this project as quickly as possible,” said Pechacek. “Building on DWD’s success over the past four months, we are taking a nimbler approach to modernization that can provide faster results with the federal funding that is available.”

The project is made possible through $2.4 million in federal funding made available on March 8. On March 16, DWD signed a $1.2 million contract with 18F to develop the details of the project. DWD signed a Memorandum of Understanding on March 9 with U.S. Digital Response (USDR), a nonprofit focused on helping governments respond to critical public needs. USDR’s involvement includes no-cost preliminary consulting services and assistance outlining a framework, goals and plans.

The involvement of 18F will especially help with bringing the necessary expertise to the acquisitions process. Using modular contracting, with a focus on user experience, 18F’s solicitation package will ultimately bring a qualified vendor team no later than 10 weeks after the project’s start. The agile acquisition strategies are intended to help de-risk the process while staying on the timeline.

“Modular contracting is an approach that allows teams to pivot to the solutions user’s need,” said 18F Acting Deputy Director and Acquisitions Director Ashley Owens in a press release. “Focusing on the user, we hope to provide an approach for DWD that can be replicated and scaled.”

In the first phase of the project, DWD is looking to better serve the public’s needs with an integrated cloud-based communications center with 24/7 responsiveness. The solution will benefit DWD by offering an easy-to-use platform for agents and management. It also allows for scalability as the program’s needs change and expand.

As Evers tweeted on March 19, the new UI call center is expected to be launched this fall to connect Wisconsin residents with the help they need.

Government Technology is a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.