According to Social Security, 6.5 million people in the United States are alive and kicking at 112. Before you leap to applaud modern medical advances, though, even the agency admits that most of these people have probably gone gently into that good night.
However, it hasn’t been able to formally determine that, because it can’t access death certificates for them, as many aren’t digitized. The agency is pleading for better vital records systems to connect its records to birth and death data across the United States, but the government needs more than that: It needs a comprehensive tech overhaul that extends far beyond who’s living and dying in America.
In the case of the Social Security problem, the implications are obvious. Social Security fraud is a significant issue, and having large quantities of Social Security numbers floating around for the taking means that people can establish lines of credit, mortgages, car loans, and credit cards in the name of people long dead. There’s no one for financial institutions to go after once those borrowers become delinquent. Poor vital records also make it difficult to compile accurate demographic statistics on the United States; for example, having data on how many people are actually alive at 112 would be genuinely interesting.
As a short-term solution, the government could invest millions in digitizing death certificates, developing a software platform for sharing the data, and connecting it with Social Security. This, however, is a terrible idea. It’s not the best solution and it will in fact actively perpetuate the problem of hodge-podge, scrap-quilted government software; what the government really needs is substantial investment in technological infrastructure to bring itself up to date with the civilian world and with other world governments. Without that investment, Social Security and the Healthcare.gov debacle will seem like drops in the bucket.
The government needs to invest in a tech overhaul, and it needs to do it fast. When compared with other Western nations, the IT available to government employees is a joke. Peter Orszag, former director of the Office of Management and Budget at the White House, remarked several years ago: “Twenty years ago, people who came to work in the federal government had better technology at work than at home. Now that’s no longer the case.” Since then, little has changed.
Take, for example, the Patent and Trade Office, which has a byzantine processing system that requires hard copies of all applications. Despite the fact that some 80 percent of applications are filed electronically, personnel still have to print and then scan them. That’s because the agency hasn’t bothered to upgrade its infrastructure. Such outdated equipment generates a huge waste of time for employees, translating into high expenses for taxpayers, and it also makes it more difficult to cross reference and search for preexisting patents and related inventions.
In Washington state, government agencies are still using computers and software from the 1980s for vital records, managing the court system, law enforcement tasks, and handling taxes. Roughly one third of the state’s technology is over two decades old, and IT personnel need to be familiar with obsolete coding languages like COBOL in order to maintain the backends of key government sites and software.
Or take a look at emergency services and what happened when 911 systems attempted to cope with cell phones. Services equipped for landlines often didn’t know what to do with cell phones, rerouting calls endlessly or dropping them altogether. This is an illustration of outdated tech, but it’s not the end of the story: Because the tech is so outdated, there’s no actual data on how many calls were mishandled and how they were mishandled. Thus, we have no functional way of knowing exactly how badly the 911 system is failing us.