Colorado eyeing tech debt with federal infrastructure funding

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Written by Colin Wood

Colorado chief information officer Tony Neal-Graves said this week that he sees the federal stimulus funding currently being distributed to states as an excellent opportunity to begin paying off decades of technical debt.

Neal-Graves testified before the state legislature’s Joint Technology Committee, which on Tuesday placed his office’s $66 million proposal to modernize some of the state’s oldest systems high on its list of technology spending priorities. He said the state launched a project a year ago to inventory the extent of the state’s technical debt, and it has so far reached a value of $465 million.

“For various reasons, we have a lot of legacy equipment,” Neal-Graves told StateScoop. “In the past, the model has been you build a new system, but you don’t always provide the investment to run and maintain it, and then you don’t have the investment to replace it when it gets old either .”

Like many other states, Neal-Graves said Colorado has “digged a hole for itself” over the past several decades. But federal aid funding, he said, is a chance for the state to carve its way out.

“This not only makes the state safer, but also saves us money,” he said. “We can actually do that [return-on-investment] Calculations show that if we can phase out some of this legacy technology that requires a lot of manual intervention to maintain, we actually don’t need to invest ongoing general funds to constantly support these systems.”

Neal-Graves said the state information technology agency is also currently working with its customer agencies to identify their individual technical debt — he estimates the current statewide figure of nearly half a billion dollars will continue to rise.

He said updating legacy systems is vital because of the cost savings involved, but also because modern technology infrastructure is required to deliver modern digital services. He pointed to a two-year initiative launched by Gov. Jared Polis in 2020 called ” ReimagineITwhich has generated more than 20 projects on the use of modern technologies for the state.

These projects include a Real time billing platformwhich Neal-Graves said, allows the state to detail bills that people have long taken for granted when dealing with private companies, but which required years of work in state government.

“There’s nothing magical about that,” he said. “If you look at a company that provides IT services, these are the things they do. I myself couldn’t understand why the state doesn’t work that way.”

Neal-Graves said that instigating these changes within state government is primarily a cultural shift: legislators need to be convinced that IT investments are worthwhile relative to other funding requests, and administrators need to be convinced that their current working methods are inadequate.

“I think we’ve made some really good progress… by spending time with the agencies and getting them to a place where they understand their role and better define their business needs in terms of requirements and the type of outcomes they are seeking.” can achieve, and how can technology make that possible,” he said. “But it’s a long-term investment. It’s not something you just say, we’ll do it in six months and everything will be great when we’re done. You have to be there for the long term if you want to make changes like this.”

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