4 technologies that transformed government

FCW looks back on key innovations of the past quarter century.

Being in charge of a government agency’s IT programs has never been an easy job. People have watched IT transform the economy, the culture and their personal lives in the past two decades, so they naturally expect a similar swift pace of technology-fueled reinvention from government — all without any missteps or wasting of taxpayer dollars, of course.

Unfortunately, despite having invented some world-changing technologies, such as the Internet and the Global Positioning System, the government is often viewed as a technology laggard that is encumbered by outdated attitudes and procurement processes.

Comparisons to the private sector are inevitable but mostly unfair. Government IT leaders deal with unique challenges and responsibilities when it comes to buying and deploying IT, including organizations that drive their own parochial IT agendas, project funding that is dependent on annual re-approval, and myriad regulations that dictate how agencies plan, develop and manage their IT systems.

In the stories that follow, we take a closer look at some world-changing technology developments of the past 25 years, including the Internet, a game changer if there ever was one, and GPS, which has revolutionized the way we interact with our world and underscored the power of place.

Now the demand for mobile technology and apps, with all the inherent security challenges, is driving a new revolution in employee productivity and public interaction, whether agencies are ready or not.

Fortunately, the government has kept pace with many of those changes by gradually moving away from custom-built systems to commercial off-the-shelf technology. That shift has been accompanied by changes in policy that further streamlined the procurement process and gave agencies access to commodity products wrapped in solutions tailored to their specific needs.

All those achievements face challenges, but that is only natural as technologies continually evolve to meet the government’s and the public’s ever-changing needs and expectations.

NEXT: Government at your fingertips

How the birth of the Internet enabled e-government

The Internet has changed the way the whole world does business, so it is no wonder that it has transformed — and is still transforming — the way the government delivers services to the public, buys products and shares information.

The Defense Department developed the Internet’s predecessor, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, in the 1960s and 1970s as a way for its university partners and research labs to communicate. By 1996, many civilian agencies were flocking to the Internet, notably the General Services Administration, which became one of the first to give Internet access to all its employees.

1996 was the year that the Clinger-Cohen Act effectively ended GSA’s reign as a mandated supplier to the government, so the agency was looking for ways to improve its operations and offer better services to its agency customers. Acting GSA Commissioner David Barram, a 24-year veteran of Silicon Valley technology companies, said at the time that the Internet would be a key to GSA’s future competitiveness.

“Some people did still wonder what anyone in GSA would need it for,” said Bob Woods, president of Topside Consulting Group and former commissioner of GSA’s Federal Technology Service. “But the Internet’s communications potential quickly became apparent.”

GSA’s leaders were hardly alone in their assessment. The National Institutes of Health set up a virtual store in 1996 that allowed its employees to shop for computer products over the Internet. Many agencies had been using electronic data interchange for years to conduct business, but those systems relied on esoteric back-office software and proprietary networks controlled by procurement specialists. By comparison, the emerging World Wide Web and the online storefronts it enabled were democratizing e-commerce.

The Internet’s increasing popularity also gave agencies a new way to interact with and serve the public. As soon as they began going online, agencies established websites to provide basic information and government data to the public and later added a variety of electronic services.

The e-government investments have paid off, especially in recent times when overall trust in government has taken a hit. For example, taxpayers who file their returns electronically give the Internal Revenue Service a fairly high score on the American Customer Satisfaction Index: 78 out of 100 versus 57 for those who file on paper.

“ACSI results confirm that the promotion of e-government initiatives is not only a worthwhile pursuit but is one that will likely continue to alter the landscape of government,” said Claes Fornell, ACSI’s founder.

However, security and privacy concerns continue to be major hurdles for the government’s expanded use of the Internet, particularly in the era of cloud computing.

“I think the government has done a fairly good job in enhancing things to do with [agency use of the] Internet from a bureaucratic perspective,” said Rick Nelson, director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But there will be this constant tension going forward about adopting technologies because of security concerns.”

NEXT: The power of place

How a technology developed for the Cold War permeated government operations

The Global Positioning System is pervasive in today’s government operations, whether it’s supporting surveillance of the country’s borders, disaster response or critical functions on the battlefield. And it plays a role in a variety of products and services the public has enthusiastically adopted.

That widespread use of the government-developed, satellite-based navigation system is a far cry from its origins as a highly secret, specialized and expensive asset, conceived during the Cold War as a means to improve the accuracy of the country’s nuclear defenses and other military capabilities.

Over time, the government opened the system to civilian and public use, and GPS — and the parallel developments of publicly available, high-resolution satellite imagery and geographic information systems to manage all that data — has fundamentally changed people’s ability to understand and interact with the world around them.

“We’ve had this explosion of 'the power of place,’ provided by the ubiquity of GPS and the availability of precise geospatial information,” said Keith Masback, president of the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation. “All members of the federal government are interacting with their IT systems and their data differently because they’re geo-enabled and enabled with precise location information.”

That capacity is being applied to a multitude of government functions, many of them vital to both routine and emergency operations. For example, GPS and satellite imagery were central to the success of the decennial census in 2010 and are used every day in law enforcement, air traffic control, agriculture and emergency response.

The technology has also proved invaluable in disaster response. “The Haiti earthquake and hurricanes Katrina and Rita…really brought everything to bear,” Masback said. “We had crowdsourcing of critical information that was enabled by GPS. Those were major turning points.”

GPS is also playing a key role in the comprehensive overhaul of records at Arlington National Cemetery. Two years after allegations of gross mismanagement surfaced, officials are using GPS-based tools to digitize and organize operations — and enhance the visitor’s experience.

“Arlington is now able to visualize operations across 624 acres, in real time, to understand what’s occurring at the cemetery,” said Maj. Nicholas Miller, the cemetery’s CIO. “We’ve transformed into a GIS-managed operation.”

But there are challenges for the future of GPS and satellite imagery. The heavy dependence on the systems heightens existing and emerging vulnerabilities and complexities. Current satellite constellations are aging, and a number of policy-related issues threaten progress. Furthermore, geospatial systems in development in other countries could introduce interoperability challenges and fragment the supporting civilian industry.

“We have to understand we’ve become reliant on GPS, and we’ve set the global standard: We built it, we launched it, we maintain it,” Masback said. He noted that Europe and China are developing their own satellite navigation systems and added, “but other countries are cognizant of the vulnerability that comes with having the keys to the kingdom. These are going to be different approaches to GPS.… How is that going to impact us?”

NEXT: Better acquisition with commodity IT

How the shift from custom-built to ready-made commercial products has streamlined federal acquisition

The shift away from proprietary and custom-built systems to off-the-shelf hardware and software has had a significant impact not only on what the government buys but also how it buys.

Although government has not achieved the level of gains that private industry has, commodity computing in government has had similar benefits: lower hardware costs, greater efficiency and rapid innovation in applications.

The road to the broad commoditization of computing in government began with the development of the Unix operating system, said Tim Hoechst, chief technology officer at Agilex. He believes that Unix’s ability to run on a number of platforms led to companies competing to build cheaper systems that could host Unix.

The next phase came on the desktop as first DOS and then Microsoft Windows became the standard for most computing purposes, and machines based on the Wintel architecture became pervasive. Procurement reform followed closely on the heels of commodity PCs, and agencywide contracts made acquisition even simpler.

With the passage of the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994 and then the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, the government truly became a buyer of commercial IT, said Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners. Those laws were an acknowledgment that the government was no longer the major market driver in the development of IT systems, he added. The innovations of the commercial market had outstripped the government's ability to keep up, especially given its arcane laws.

The reforms enabled agencies to buy the same technologies as their commercial counterparts. Costs dropped and competition accelerated as companies sought to establish themselves in a newly defined market. The government was freer to buy and companies were freer to offer commodity-like solutions.

Once the rules came down and a firm preference for commercial products was established, buyers and sellers alike flocked to the GSA Schedules program to take advantage of its commercial offerings, reduced procurement lead times and streamlined competitions, Allen said.

Commoditization further entrenched itself when government invested heavily in client/server computing, Hoechst said. That’s when people realized they could virtualize their back-end systems with lots of cheap, commodity processors.

“In the late 1990s and early 2000s, they found they could use racks full of low-cost blades they could buy from a range of suppliers as long as they could run the operating systems and applications they wanted,” he said. “Linux was a big driver for this.”

When GSA added IT services to its Schedules program, the growth accelerated, Allen said. It allowed federal buyers to obtain commodity products wrapped in tailored solutions. The service offerings helped differentiate many suppliers from one another, and the ease of use offered by the commercial nature of the solutions made the Schedules very popular with buyers.

Where once the market was defined by government specifications and obsolete rules, it was now driven by commercial market trends and fewer rules, which allowed for more competitors and faster acquisitions.

NEXT: The perils, and promise, of mobility

How mobile technology is upending the workplace and remapping the security landscape

Mobile technology isn’t exactly new. Portable computers and basic cell phones became popular in the 1990s, and though the bulky early devices were not always the most convenient to cart around or put in a pocket, they marked the breakout of computing and communications from the confines of the office.

Now the popular BlackBerry and Palm devices of the early days have been supplanted by Apple iPhones and Android smart phones — and tablet PCs threaten to overtake laptops — thanks to a wave of innovation in the mobile technology market and broadband networking in the past several years.

However, almost from the moment the first federal manager accessed his or her e-mail on a BlackBerry or took a laptop PC home or on the road, agencies have struggled to keep up with security challenges and users’ growing expectations for the technology. Meanwhile, citizens increasingly expect to access government information and services via portable devices.

The huge surge in popularity is pressuring agencies to find secure ways to incorporate mobile devices into the enterprise — from “bring your own device” policies to Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel’s new digital strategy, touted as a much-needed blueprint for securing and managing mobile devices governmentwide.

“Mobility is not growing from our needs as an enterprise,” said Simon Szykman, CIO at the Commerce Department, at a recent mobility event. “It is being thrust upon us.”

Those security concerns came to head in 2006, when a laptop computer and external hard drive containing personal information on 26 million veterans and active-duty military personnel was stolen from the home of a Veterans Affairs Department data analyst. It was the largest information security breach in the government’s history, and VA later agreed to pay $20 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of the people whose personal information had potentially been compromised.

That theft has had “a lasting impact that has been substantial and sustained within the VA,” CIO Roger Baker said.

It was also a wakeup call for the rest of the government. Because the portability that makes the new devices so popular is also what makes them so vulnerable, new approaches focus on securing data, with one promising solution being to use mobile devices as secured thin clients that access applications in the cloud or on agency servers rather than on the local hard drive.

“With the emergence of the federal digital strategy, we have identified the problems, and the next step is working together to resolve the problems,” said Tom Suder, president of Mobilegov and co-chairman of the Advanced Mobility Working Group at the American Council for Technology/Industry Advisory Council. “I’m very optimistic. There is a good group of government people leading the effort, and they are being very proactive.”

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