Take computers off life support

Wednesday, September 14, 2011 ·

It is a truism of the modern age: “To err is human; to really foul things up takes a computer.”

This is especially true if those computers are outdated and outmoded, which happens to describe New Jersey’s hodgepodge of anachronistic state government clunkers.

Gov. Chris Christie wants to change that, and Democrats in the Legislature don’t seem to share his concern. Inexplicably, Democratic lawmakers did not include Christie’s proposal to spend $5.5 million to upgrade them in their budget, putting data as well as services to residents at risk.

The Legislature should waste no time in restoring that $5.5 million as a down payment on a five-year, $60 million upgrade the state needs to bring the system up to date.

New Jersey’s makeshift, patchwork IT operation is a mess. Not only bureaucrats, but taxpayers, will be affected by the inevitable computer failures lurking around the bend.

In some cases, those failures have already surfaced. Because of the Motor Vehicle Commission’s computer issues, New Jersey is one of a handful of states that doesn’t let drivers renew their licenses by mail or online. A computer failure on July 11 kept hundreds of MVC customers in long lines for hours.

New Jersey’s information technology “super highway” is more like a pothole-ridden, two-lane country road. It is split between an independent office and a separate technology staff in each state department. Those offices don’t communicate as closely as they should.

Many of the computer systems are so old that in some departments only one person knows how to work them. If that person retires, and something goes wrong, nobody is left who knows how to fix it.

Both of New Jersey’s data centers lack the data storage needed to add new applications, a critical issue because storage demands are growing between 20 percent and 35 percent a year.

Christie said he looked for a crank to operate his desktop computer the first time he saw it, and that an abacus would be more useful. The Legislature shouldn’t need an abacus to recognize that money spent now on computer upgrades will save a lot more later.

As Raymond Martinez, MVC chief, put it: “So if I have a brand-new car, with a brand-new engine that’s been rebuilt, and it works great, that’s not really going to help me if the road that I have to drive on is not built, if the traffic signals don’t work on that road, if there’s no gas stations, if there’s no stop signs.”

The Legislature should allocate money to upgrade the Stone Age computer system with which it has saddled the state — and us.