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Sequester not to blame for lack of innovation

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Responding to an Aug. 22 article in FCW about procurement hindering innovation in the government, a reader wrote:

Another killer of innovation has been sequestration. We are technologically losing ground to adversaries. The reason is the way sequestration was executed was first to protect all employees, then recap budgets and if anything was left it funded technology development. Guess what - in most agency cases there are no technology innovation dollars left. In a commercial environment a budget cut would have involved 10% layoffs, 20% reduction in recap (servers will last another year), and left money for innovation, otherwise you lose competitiveness. Why can't government be run like this?

Frank Konkel responds:

Good points – the government isn’t run like this, but to place the blame on sequestration probably isn’t correct, either. For starters, the government has been wasting money in IT for the past decade, a documented $9.2 billion since 2003. Those numbers come from the Government Accountability Office.

Not coincidentally, GAO released a report in December 2012 that showed the federal government spent $54 billion of its $79 billion 2011 IT budget on legacy technology. In other words, seven dollars of every 10 the government spent on technology went to maintaining old technology, and only three went to developing any kind of new applications or technology. According to a MeriTalk study released in July, the government spends closer to 80 percent of its IT budget on maintaining legacy systems. The data suggests a fundamental problem in the way the government procures technology and maintains systems, which inadvertently stifles innovation. Sequestration might have added to the problem, but it existed long before sequestration became a political talking point. The government doesn’t like to fire employees, it’s not always quick to adapt to change and its bottom line isn’t measured in terms of whether its operating in the red or black. For these reasons, I don’t think the government will ever operate like a private-sector business in prosperous times.

Yet some agency IT shops and CIOs have promoted innovation as a necessity, given tighter budget constraints. Innovation, some agencies have found, leads to better ways of doing things. Perhaps a continued scarcity of funds and uncertainty will force the government to run more like a private-sector company might. Time will tell, and it’s a fast-moving time in IT right now.

Posted by Frank Konkel on Aug 27, 2013 at 10:10 AM


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