EDITORIAL: New unemployment benefits system falters

Any well-run business understands the importance of having a back-up plan, of having contingencies in place when things go wrong. And any business with an ounce of savvy knows that when there is any type of computer system change, it’s best to have a contingency plan on top of the contingency plan.

But as is too often the case when it’s government doing business, with taxpayers’ money, there is a lack of planning and little contingency — and not enough accountability.

Such was the case when, last week, Nevada’s Employment Security Division — which disburses unemployment benefits — apparently launched a $30 million computer system, as reported Saturday by the Review-Journal’s Ed Vogel. “Apparently” is the operative word, because the agency failed in the first stage of back-up planning: notifying anyone and everyone who might be affected by this change that a shift to a new system was taking place, and that there could be some glitches with that transition. This despite knowing there could be issues; the launch was to take place Aug. 26, but was tabled until Sept. 4 because of technical issues.

Even the delayed launch didn’t help. Thousands who tried to file for weekly unemployment benefits or file for the first time were unable to do so, Mr. Vogel reported, and worse, they were not able to get through to the agency. North Las Vegas resident Josh Van Tuinen told Mr. Vogel he’d called an agency number for three hours and couldn’t reach anyone who could help him. “Like everyone else, I need the little bit of money coming to me. It’s horrible.”

One anonymous complaint submitted to the Review-Journal noted that the automated message reached by callers “tells you to refile your claim and gives you an invalid option to do so. There is no way to speak to a representative.”

When a business serves 50,000 people a month, as the Employment Security Division does right now in this weak economy, such issues need to be anticipated and prepared for, and there needs to be widespread advance notice to customers so those affected know how to proceed if any problems arise.

Kelly Karch, deputy administrator of unemployment insurance for the agency, extended an apology Friday to the thousands who were affected and said no one will lose any money due to the computer glitches. But indeed, some money had to have been lost — it’s a new, $30 million system, and the fact that it didn’t work surely cost the agency (read: taxpayers) more time and funding to deliver services. Beneficiaries also were put out, unable to meet their needs on time.

In the future, this agency and all others whose existence depends on taxpayer funding would be wise to remember this idiom: Prior planning prevents poor performance.

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