Federal government agencies are using technologies that have been obsolete for decades, creating numerous obstacles in their ability to provide basic services, notes a recent report by the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

This outdated IT has been exacerbated by the Coronavirus pandemic and points to a need for the government to engage in public-private partnerships to resolve this problem.

As the report notes, several agencies, including the IRS, continue to use technology that was developed almost 50 years ago and was considered obsolete decades ago.

For instance, the agency is using COBOL, a programing language first developed in the 1960s, to administer key programs. COBOL was designed for use with mainframe computers and has been replaced by cloud computing services offered by companies like Amazon and Microsoft.

The government continues to use COBOL even though they are struggling to find employees that have expertise with the technology. This shortage of expertise not be surprising – according to the PPI report, COBOL is 43rd most popular programming language and the average age of a COBOL programmer is 55-years-old.

As the report notes, the continued used of COBOL meant that many Americans struggled to receive COVID-19 stimulus payments:

“Many Americans encountered error messages (‘Payment Status Not Available’) when they tried to find out why they hadn’t received their stimulus check yet. The solution? Using only uppercase letters in the form (and if that didn’t solve the issue, people were advised to try abbreviating words like ‘Street’ and ‘Avenue’).”

To be clear, this is only one case of outdated technology. As the report notes, the IRS has a “profoundly outdated and inaccurate taxpayer database.” Several parts of the IRS IT infrastructure date back to the Kennedy administration.

One way the government can improve its IT is through public-private partnerships that take advantage of private sector innovation. As the report notes:

“Governments should start with pilot projects and partner with the private sector where possible. Likewise, modern public-private partnership strategies would enable government to leverage private sector investments and infrastructure to apply them to public purpose.” 

The IT used by federal government is in dire need of modernization and points to clear limitations of the IRS and other agencies. In addition, this dangerously outdated technology points to a need to engage with the private sector.