Food stamp glitch lesson: IT failures go mainstream

Food stamp glitch lesson: IT failures go mainstream

Summary: A Xerox routine backup turns into a food stamp disaster in 17 states. IT failures are becoming everyman's business.


Information technology failures — glitches or whatever you want to call them — used to be examined by folks in the business tech press and a few other industry onlookers.

Today, IT failures are becoming everyman's business. First, the glitches illustrated what happens when technology projects aren't quite ready for prime time. And now a routine test of backup systems by Xerox, led to food stamp issues.

Xerox's Electronics Benefits Transfer (EBT) system had a temporary shutdown and it affected people under the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program in 17 states.

In a statement Saturday at 5:27 p.m. EDT, Xerox noted the EBT system was down and it was working a fix. EBT beneficiaries could have activated an emergency voucher system. By 10:26 p.m. EDT Saturday, Xerox said that service was back.

Xerox, which has transformed into a services company via its acquisition of ACS, said:

We appreciate our clients’ patience while we resolved this issue and apologize for any inconvenience. We realize that access to these benefits is important to families in the states we serve. We continue to investigate the cause of the issue so we can take steps to ensure a similar interruption does not re-occur.

That five-hour window led to a few issues. Some food stamp program participants has unlimited spending limits. In Louisiana, CBS News documented the run on food as people tried to buy as much as possible at a Wal-Mart before the limits were put back. Once the EBT issue was resolved, carts were abandoned en masse.

The bottom line is that IT failures used to be a problem with a limited audience. Today, everything is tethered to technology and when the inevitable outage occurs, the reputation risks are going to be much higher going forward.

Topics: CXO, Government, Outage, Outsourcing

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  • IT failures have long been mainstream

    I recall that 30 years ago when I was a college student (CS major) working in the receiving department of a department store, the cash registers became inoperative every time the central computer went down (about once a month). It struck me as silly then (and still does) that the registers didn't have the ability to continue to record transactions in the interim (they could have even had their own copies of the price list); once the server came back on line, it could then synchronize with the registers. This would have been a win for the store, it's customers, and employees alike (but no! the store instead decided to waste everyone's time by not providing a work-around).
    John L. Ries
    • Forgot

      It seems that there was no price list on the server; the cashiers were entering all of the prices manually along with the SKUs. I know this was 1980s technology, but even so.

      So all that the registers really needed was the ability to record transactions offline (how hard could that have been?).
      John L. Ries
      • actually, John

        I wrote code for the cash register system for a very large retailer in the mid 80's, and the setup was similar. We had a DEC server in the computer room and 20 dumb terminals with custom cash drawers for registers (the hardware was originally designed for Blockbuster video). The problem with having pricing at the registers was the price of the hardware, particularly storage. With PCs going for well over $1000 on the low end, the hardware was prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, the only time we had unscheduled downtime in ten years running that system was the day after opening day, when a power transformer blew and took out the switch that was supposed to bring in the backup generators.
        • Reliability certainly would have helped...

          ...and there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, as one of my engineering professors used to say in a thick Chinese accent. Thanks for responding.

          Point being that breakdowns have to be rare indeed to make it worthwhile to not provide a backup (good thing your system was sufficiently reliable).
          John L. Ries
  • the ebt slaves run a muck

    is anyone surprised they tried to spend spend spend?

    Feed you own damn kids, end foodstamps and WIC.
    • There may be good arguments for abolishing the programs...

      ...but there do appear to be a fair number of industrious people (especially young families) in need of short term relief; like it or not. Maybe churches, extended families, and private charities should be doing this instead of the state, but unfortunately, the legitimate need is there.
      John L. Ries
      • Agreed..BUT

        at least kick the loafers off that took advantage of this glitch, they knew exactly what they were doing and that was stealing from the hand that feeds them.
        • I'll accept that

          Cheats should be prosecuted.
          John L. Ries
      • John: stop being so naive...

        While it's true that there are people who do need to be "helped", there are far too many who do abuse the system.

        And, in fact, there are people in government who do benefit from making people dependent on government handouts. The democrats claim to be the party that takes care of the poor, but the opposite is true. Democrats have made sure that there will be a permanent dependent society, which guarantees that, those dependents will keep voting democrat. The number of dependents is now more than 1/3 of the U.S. population, and growing. Romney made reference to the 47% that would never vote for him, since they were loyal voters for democrats who offered them "free stuff" from the government. That is a huge number, and though Romney was politically incorrect in making the 47% remark, the remark was still true.

        Dependency in government is a tactic formulated by the democrats, and the democrats also devised another tactic to keep those people dependent, and that tactic was to scare them to death by claiming that, voting for republicans would mean losing their "benefits", which just another word for handouts or "free stuff from government".

        It's not about to change, and the country is left with no option but to eventually, collapse from the massive social programs which are strangling the country.
        • Where do you keep getting these numbers?

          I figure if they were common knowledge, I'd know them too. But the bigger question is, why do you think cutting off all public assistance would eliminate dependency, instead of merely shifting it? Can you cite any historical examples? Do you have anything to support that supposition other than theory?

          I'll also note that if the Republican Party had really wanted to abolish federal assistance programs, they could have done it 6 of the 8 years George W. Bush was President. Even if they couldn't get past a Democratic filibuster in the Senate in order to repeal the laws, they certainly could have been zeroed out of the budget (budget resolutions can't be filibustered).

          But we've had alternation between Democrats and Republicans in the Presidency since WWII (no one party has held the presidency for more than 3 terms since then); we've had alternating Congressional majorities since 1994; and most states have similar alternation patterns; and yet efforts to abolish these programs have been rare, even when Republicans have had full control. Even solidly Republican Utah, where I live, has public assistance programs more generous than anything available before the Great Depression.

          So how credible do you think the supposed "vote Democratic or public assistance will be abolished and you'll starve" threat really is?
          John L. Ries
          • Correction...

            ...four of the 8 years GWB was President (the Senate was evenly split or close to it in 2001-2003).
            John L. Ries
          • The numbers are actually common knowledge, but, they're not

            common knowledge to most people. In other words, if you seek to keep informed, the numbers are actually easy to find. The 47% is a number that Romney mentioned, and it represents the number of people who depend on some government program or other; it does not represent the number of people who are completely dependent on government to take them through life. The 1/3 is also common knowledge, but it you don't seek the information, you'll never find it.

            It's also common knowledge that Obama has increased the number of people on food stamps by between 15 and 17 million, and that was with an active recruitment of people to get them on food stamps. It's also common knowledge that Obama and the democrats have actively encouraged people to get them "free foans".

            When it comes to politics, the democrats are no dummies, and so, they actively seek to make more people dependent on government handouts or subsidies or benefits or freebies.

            Republicans haven't had a veto proof majority in both the senate and house at the same time, so, democrats knew that, any attempts to cut any social programs were doomed and actively sought to scare people during elections about how the "evil" republicans were going to take away their "entitlements" or benefits. I think that everybody in the U.S. saw the commercial where an actor portraying Paul Ryan throwing "grandma" off the side of a cliff; meaning that, if Romney and republicans gained all of congress and the White House, the elderly would be losing their Medicare and Medicaid. Those commercials were widely seen and the democrats were quite proud of them, and the effect of those scare tactics did show up in the final tally of the elections.

            Did you really have to ask about how credible the scare tactics are? They are everywhere all the time, and during elections and every day in the news and in talk shows. Those scare tactics work, and that's very unfortunate for the future of the country.
          • If they're not common knowledge to most people...

            ...then they're not common knowledge (by definition). And I strongly suspect that the reason why you decline to name your sources when you throw numbers around is because you don't know where they came from either (you're simply repeating what you hear from Conservative commentators, whose word you take on faith because it supports what you already believe).

            And why would the Republicans need a veto-proof majority if the president is one of their own, as was the case from 2001-2009? There were even Republican majorities in both houses of Congress from 2003-2007 and GWB was in such harmony with the Republican Congressional leadership that he didn't veto a single bill during the first six years of his presidency (any bill the White House opposed never made it to the House floor). Please note that the "danger" that Republican politicians might lose some votes they might get otherwise because they want to cut social programs is an entirely different issue.
            John L. Ries
        • ...and...

          ...Romney came within 3 percentage points of winning, despite his unfortunate remark, doing better than John McCain did in 2008.

          But even so... isn't self-reliance simply a better way to live; and if so, why can't it be sold that way?
          John L. Ries
          • Self-reliance went out the door when people realized that,

            they could vote themselves "freebies from government". There is still a great percentage of people with great pride who wouldn't even think of taking handouts, but, there is also a big percentage of people who just want to get taken care of, and that's the part that is destroying the country.
          • Isn't self reliance still a better way to live?

            And if it's not, why aren't *you* trying to get whatever freebies you can?
            John L. Ries
          • Point remains

            If you're right, then you're far more likely to convert people if you befriend them and then persuading them that you're at least partly right than you are by accusing them. And I'll submit to you that at least *some* of the people on the dole don't want to be there. Those are the ones you start with.
            John L. Ries
    • foodstamps are slave rations

      if you are pro-foodstamp, you are pro slavery

      obviously this doesn't include truly disabled people, and not the fake disabled scamming the system
      • I think you're exaggerating the point

        And it's not the case that abolition of public relief reduces dependency in and of itself (there are lots of "entrepreneurs" that would be more than happy to exploit those without the resources to make it on their own).

        I don't like doles either, but replacing public doles with private ones is a dubious solution to the problem (Look up "Tammany Hall" on Wikipedia for an example). On the whole, it's much better to help people become self-sufficient, so they don't need a dole (reduce the demand, and you won't need to worry so much about supply).
        John L. Ries
        • People aren't allowed to fail is the problem

          being hungry would push most to get a job and be more responsible.