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A look at the tech troubles plaguing the stimulus check and PPP small business loan portals

May 12, 2020, 10:30 AM UTC

It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s tried to log in to the IRS’s “Get My Payment” website to check on the status of their stimulus check, or any business that’s applied for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program: the federal government could use a software update.

Many users who have accessed, or tried to access, the government-run portals designed to facilitate these programs—some of the hallmark initiatives of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus aid package, known as the CARES Act—have encountered an array of tech-related difficulties. These challenges have shone a light on the technology deployed by the government—and prompted some to ask why glitches, crashes, and outdated turn-of-the-century interfaces are the order of the day.

The “Get My Payment” portal, for example, is supposed to allow Americans to track the status of their federal stimulus payment and enter their direct deposit information to receive their payment quicker. But users, especially in the wake of the portal’s initial rollout last month, found logging into the site easier said than done—only for some to realize that they just needed to enter their street address in all capital letters to be let in.

The SBA’s PPP portal, meanwhile, has also been hit by issues, with backlogs and technical challenges hindering small businesses and lenders alike. E-Tran, the system used by the SBA to electronically process loan application, utilizes a relatively archaic interface and functionality that has been overwhelmed by an unprecedented deluge of applications—leading the head of the American Bankers Association to raise such issues at “the highest levels” of the government.  (Representatives for the Treasury Department, the IRS, and the SBA did not return requests for comment.)

At a time when scores of private sector fintech firms are transforming virtually every facet of financial services, the question is why the public sector is lagging so far behind in its own tech-enabled platforms—and why there isn’t more collaboration between the two sectors to build a more efficient, functional experience.

“You would think there would an approach [by the government] that would say, ‘We can’t have 1995-style websites,’” notes Yuval Brisker, co-founder and CEO of digital payment startup Mezu. “It’s a question of technology not just being a private undertaking, but a public undertaking as well… As long as the government doesn’t see [technology] as an essential connection to its constituents, then there’s no real impetus to improve systems that were established in the 1990s and 2000s.”

Brisker says the current situation presents an opportunity for closer collaboration between the government and fintech firms deploying state-of-the-art technology to move money around. With the likes of PayPal and Square now able to disburse PPP loans, he thinks there’s no reason why there can’t be more public-private partnerships enabling the government to leverage the private sector’s technical nous.

“We’re not a huge company, but we’ve built an incredibly powerful platform—and when you think of the [larger] tech companies, they can do almost anything,” according to Brisker. “I believe the tech world has the ability to address some of these issues of connecting the government to its populace.”

For those who have seen the way government programs like PPP function up-close, reform is much easier said than done. Rho Business Banking, a digital commercial banking platform that launched last year, has been connecting its small business clients with PPP lenders—and in the estimation of Everett Cook, Rho’s co-founder and CEO, “the challenge comes down to the way that these systems are built” at the federal level.

Cook points to a heavy reliance on contractors who aren’t incentivized to continually improve the software they’ve designed for the government’s disposal. “Good software companies are constantly iterating and improving; you don’t just ship a product and say you’re done,” he says. “The ongoing process of improvement and iteration is something the government doesn’t do.”

Instead, the SBA’s E-Tran portal “buckled” under PPP application volumes far beyond what the system is typically accustomed to, according to Cook. While the SBA’s total loan volume over its entire 2019 fiscal year eclipsed $28 billion, the PPP’s initial round saw the government process nearly $350 billion in a matter of weeks.

“Had they invested in better products and technology led by the private sector, not only would it have performed better when put to the test, but it would have ultimately saved the government and the private sector a lot of time and money,” Cook says.

Rather than relying on contractors to do a one-and-done job on the technology it deploys, Cook believes the government would be better off relying on public-private partnerships that would see private sector tech firms develop and continually improve the systems used by the government.

“The challenge of a one-off [government] contract is that, once you’ve won it, there’s little incentive to get better and better—and software is all about getting better and better,” he notes. “The right [government] program would create profit incentives to encourage private companies to work toward the best [technological] solution on an ongoing basis.”

Bryan Routledge, an associate professor of finance at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, gives the government the benefit of the doubt in noting the “extraordinary” measures it’s been forced to roll out in relatively short order.

But whether it’s the challenge of replacing “legacy” systems that have been in use for years or an unwillingness to embrace newer technologies, like blockchain, that could conceivably help it function more efficiently, Routledge acknowledges a sentiment that “government cycles are just slower” in their ability to embrace, adopt, and roll out change.

“They certainly aren’t hiring two-or-three person coding shops that are mainlining coffee and putting out beautiful websites,” he adds.

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