Government IT modernization legislation finally clears U.S. Senate

Jerry Bowles Profile picture for user jbowles September 21, 2017
After two years of wandering in the wilderness, the Modernizing Government Technology Act has finally cleared both houses of Congress.  Will it be enough to jumpstart a government movement toward newer, more secure IT? 

Capitol hill senate
The government’s much ballyhooed but long delayed IT modernization initiative—called the Modernizing Government Technology Act (MGT)--cleared the Senate earlier this week as an amendment to the $700 billion National Defense Authorization Act, which sets defense personnel, policy and spending for the next fiscal year.

The House version, introduced by Will Hurd, R-Texas, passed as a standalone bill in May with the backing of the White House’s Office of American Innovation and many industry groups. (We wrote about that bill here.)  The Trump administration has made IT modernization a focus as part of senior adviser Jared Kushner’s work leading the American Technology Council.

The ATC draft, Strengthening the Cybersecurity of Federal Networks and Critical Infrastructure, recommends that agencies take the following steps to secure and modernize federal IT:

  • Modernize and consolidate networks: Cloud computing, modernization of Government-hosted applications, and better security for legacy systems.
  • Use shared services to enable future network architectures: Commercial cloud, cloud email and collaboration tools, and additional security for shared services.

The Senate version was introduced by Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Tom Udall, D-N.MGT,  It creates a $500 million central modernization fund over two years that agencies can borrow against  to transition from costly legacy systems to newer, more secure technology.

The bill also creates IT working capital funds at 24 federal government agencies and allow them to use savings obtained through streamlining IT systems, replacing legacy products and transitioning to cloud computing for up to three years for further modernization efforts.  House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in a statement:

Senate passage of the Modernizing Government Technology Act is a major step forward in our goal of creating a more cost-efficient and digitally secure federal government.  By leveraging new technologies, we will save taxpayers money and deliver a well-overdue update to our nation’s IT systems.

Among the modernization projects championed by the legislation are modernization and consolidation of networks; updates of Government-hosted applications, better security for legacy systems, use of shared services to enable future network architectures, use of commercial cloud, cloud email and collaboration tools, and additional security for shared services. The legislation now heads to conference to reconcile the differences with the House version.

Said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) in a release:

The federal government currently spends over $80 billion on IT, but 75 percent of that money goes to maintaining old and out of date legacy systems. With the MGT Act’s flexible funding options, we can break that cycle and bring the federal government into the modern era — tackling dangerous cyber vulnerabilities and protecting the American people from increasingly severe cyberattacks, and empowering agencies to move forward with long-overdue projects to streamline how the federal government operates.

My take

The problem is that in the context of aging and insecure government IT infrastructure, the funding involved is a drop in the proverbial bucket. A similar IT modernization legislation passed the House last year, but died in the Senate when the CBO estimated that modernization would cost $9 billion over five years. This time around, CBO estimates the fiscal 2018 and 2019 cost at $500 million to finance a yearly $250 million IT modernization fund administered by a Technology Modernization Board.

The bill has good ideas and good solid goals and bipartisan support. But with less than 3 percent of IT modernization funded, agencies are going to have to work smart to assure a meaningful outcome. Open source anyone? More ot the point, who is going to want to bid on this with any real expectation of getting much done?

Image credit - US government

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