A funny thing happened after Barack Obama became President of the United States.

Working for the government suddenly became “cool again” and young people all across the country flocked to Washington, D.C., hoping to give back to their country.

Roughly four years later, however, many of them left.

Last year, the Office of Personnel Management reported that millennials leave their government jobs after just 3.8 years — a significantly shorter service than their older government colleagues and the national average. According to The Hill, millennials “quickly leave when they feel caught in a slog of forms and red tape upon taking up the position.”

“It’s time,” The Hill went on, “for government agencies to embrace the online world by allowing their employees free rein over the web and invest in government software to improve their agency’s efficiency.”

Tax Season at Hawaii Tax Department

This 2010 photo shows the state Tax Department’s receiving and sorting section during tax season. Gov. David Ige wants to improve the state’s IT capabilities in order to do a better job of collecting millions of dollars in unpaid taxes that slip through because of Hawaii’s inability to effectively audit tax returns.

Civil Beat

I was reminded of the government’s mass exodus of millennials last week when Gov. David Ige explained the sorry state of Hawaii’s information technology systems to Civil Beat. If you ever saw the state’s IT infrastructure, he said, “you guys would have nightmares and sleepless nights.”

The room — which was largely comprised of millennials — gave the governor a polite chuckle, but what he went on to describe was actually quite disturbing.

For starters, the state’s IT infrastructure is so alarmingly counterproductive that it actually has no way to deliver electronic transfers to its employees. Hawaii, one of the most environmentally conscious states, wastes 1 million pages of paper each month (12 million pages every year!) just to handle the state’s payroll.

Hawaii Business magazine once detailed how the Hawaii Department of Education handles payroll for its 25,000 employees. The very confusing and laborious process included terms my millennial brain can’t quite process: Tape drives (which I assume are like cassette tapes) interact with a dot-matrix printer (red pill? blue pill?), but changes have to be made in red pen (I only have black…) on green-bar paper (does that mean recycled? possibly vegan?) and then “keypunched” (like the hole punch I had in my middle school trapper keeper?) into the system.

Truth be told, all I can really take away from this description is that I’m very happy I don’t work for the DOE — which brings us back to the government’s millennial problem.

My generation has been able to electronically transfer money since high school; between PayPal, Google Wallet and Venmo we can do transfers from our email or from our phones in less than 30 seconds. The fact that our government can’t handle something so simple is frustrating because we know just how simple it can be.

The slow-moving, technologically inept government of today is especially hard for us to accept since we were taught that the government actually started the computer revolution. Half a century ago, Hawaii’s 743 different legacy systems were state of the art; now they require more TLC than a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia and more money for upkeep than taxpayers are willing (and able) to pay.

Traditionally, every time these systems break or need upgrades, the government has outsourced the work to expensive specialists. IT problems are typically met with procurement processes, bidding wars, copious amounts of money, long delays and mediocre results.

Hawaii, which spends a smaller percentage of its budget on IT than the national average, has been paralyzed by the procurement process for years — choosing to look the other way rather than deal with the painful and costly growing pains.

“It is so antiquated,” Gov. Ige said, “it’s amazing we haven’t had a real big hiccup for all these years.”

But while the legacy computer systems might send some millennials running for the hills, they may also be crumbling at just the right time. By 2020, nearly half of all U.S. workers will be “tech-savvy” millennials and computer knowledge will be more widely distributed than ever before. It seems like the stage is perfectly set for an IT revolution, like the government workforce may finally reach a critical mass for change.

The millennial generation is known for being disruptive — when we don’t see what we want, we create it.

“The entrepreneurial spirit is in their DNA,” according to the White House, and some enterprising young bureaucrats have already begun adapting off-the-shelf software for their own purposes.

When the Navy wanted a global maritime tracking system, for example, a number of defense contractors told them it would cost tens of millions of dollars and take several years to complete. Thankfully, some clever Department of Transportation employees built the Maritime Safety and Security Information System (MSSIS) for a mere $1.2 million by leveraging existing software and off-the-shelf receivers. It was operational within a few months and now maps real-time locations of virtually every shipping vessel over 100,000 tons.

The overwhelming success and simplicity of MSSIS makes it anomalous to what we’ve come to expect from government technology, but it may also be a bellwether.

The governor has said he’s prioritizing an update to the state’s technology. He better hurry. It won’t be long before the system either “hiccups,” sending painful reverberations through us all, or is totally disrupted by a frustrated new state employee who accidentally breaks the dot-matrix printer, but quickly grabs QuickBooks off the shelf.

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