U.S. federal government IT modernization takes one step closer to reality. Is it enough?

Jerry Bowles Profile picture for user jbowles May 7, 2017
Congressman Will Hurd’s  Modernizing Government Technology Act died in the Senate last year when senators balked at the price tag.  He’s back with a more modest plan. Will it get off the ground this time? Is it enough?

US Gov via R Hurd
One of the rare points of bipartisan U.S. political harmony is that the federal government IT infrastructure is a gigantic, leaky, antiquated mess. Some of the systems still in operation are five decades old, cost billions to maintain, and are extremely vulnerable to cyberattack.

Somewhere in the bowels of agencies like the IRS, there are still IBM System/360s plodding along like geriatric rabbits in a young bunny marathon. The federal government currently spends more than 80 percent of its more than $80 billion IT budget maintaining legacy IT systems. It's a massive public waste.

This could be the year that Congress finally starts doing something about the problem. U.S. Representative Will Hurd (R-Texas), chairman of the House Information Technology Subcommittee, introduced the Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act on April 28 with fellow Subcommittee  members from across the aisle Reps. Robin Kelly (D-Illinois) and Gerry Connolly (D-Virginia).  Said Hurd:

Bringing the government’s aging IT systems into the 21st century would not only shore up our cybersecurity, but also save billions of taxpayer dollars through reductions in wasteful spending for years to come.  A move towards modern technologies can keep our information and digital infrastructure secure from cyberattacks, while saving billions of taxpayer dollars.

The legislation is actually a revamped version of the Modernizing Government Technology Act, which Hurd first introduced in 2016.  That bill died in the Senate when members balked at a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate of its $9 billion price tag.  Hurd was careful to try to avoid a similar fate this year by asking for a much smaller amount of money, working with  Democratic counterparts and getting the blessing of  one of the Trump White House’s  pet projects,  the Office of American Innovation.

The new bill has two major provisions:

First, it creates a $250 million IT modernization fund for 2018 and 2019 to support agencies’ efforts “to improve, retire, or replace existing information technology systems … to enhance cybersecurity and to improve efficiency and effectiveness.” Each agency can establish an IT modernization and working capital fund, which would be financed through redirecting funds intended for the operation and maintenance of older systems.

Savings from such initiatives as streamlining IT systems, replacing legacy products and transitioning to cloud computing can be applied to new IT acquisitions.  The big incentive for federal CIOs is that they can use the money in the fund for up to three years.  Under current law, unused funds that an agency doesn’t use during the budget year goes back into the general pool.

The second provision establishes a Technology Modernization Fund administered by the General Service Administration’s Technology Transformation Service.  There is no funding  in the current bill for this provision so it’s unlikely to have any effect in the near-term.

President Trump has taken a personal interest in the notion of government technology modernization and issued an executive order to establish the American Technology Council to “coordinate the vision, strategy and direction” of IT across government and provide advice regarding its use.  Trump himself will chair the council and has designated Chris Liddell, former Microsoft CFO  and current White House director of strategic initiatives, as its director.

Americans deserve better digital services from their government, [the order states.] To effectuate this policy, the federal government must transform and modernize its information technology and how it uses and delivers digital services.

To which a grateful citizenry might say: “About damned time.”

My take

With bipartisan support, the White House  behind it, and a much smaller budget, the new version of the Modernizing Government Technology Act is likely on a fast track to be enacted in the next few months.  It has already been marked up and sent out by the committee. That’s the good news.

The problem is that the bill’s paltry funding of $250 million a year over the next two years is too small to have much impact on government technology’s performance and security challenges. We’re talking half a drop in the bucket. Until Congress comes up with some serious money for the Technology Modernization Fund, federal legacy IT investments are only going to become increasingly obsolete, more costly to maintain, and create significant security risks.

The working capital pool idea is a decent start but if Congress and the White House are truly committed to modernizing the government IT infrastructure into the 21st century they need to come up with additional ideas that encourage agencies to invest in cutting edge technologies and authorize the $3.1B that still needs  to be appropriated for the Information Technology Modernization Fund to get started.

Oh yes - one more fly in the ointment. As Hurd's namesake Mark Hurd, co-CEO Oracle recently said at an analyst event attended by our own Den Howlett:

I think, just to give you an example, in the Navy, if we consolidated the Oracle database in the Navy, we can probably get about half an aircraft carrier. That’s the sort of TCO lever that you could get. We continue that work.

The hardest thing in government is to find somebody who’s in charge. Frankly, the way the model is built is that, for example, Leon Panetta, who ran the Department of Defense, is now on our board. I talked to Leon for years about this for years, asking why the hell can’t we get anything done?

The core problem of government really has less to do with technology and more to do with electoral leadership and the fact that secretaries generally change every couple years, they last about two-two and a half years. As a result, by the time they figure out what’s going on, they’re out. More than anything it’s and administration problem and one that we’re going to continue to beat our head against the wall because the opportunities are just huge in terms of efficiency.

Who said anything government related is easy?

Image credit - via Will Hurd

Disclosure - Oracle is a premier partner at time of writing

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