20 things in 20 years that changed government IT

Anniversaries — such as Federal Computer Week’s 20th, which we are celebrating this year — are a good time to remember the past and learn from it

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. So goes the famous quote by philosopher and novelist George Santayana. Anniversaries — such as Federal Computer Week’s 20th, which we are celebrating this year — are a good time to remember the past and learn from it.

By looking back, we learn about where we have been and where we might be heading. We can more clearly see the hurdles we faced, decisions we made and plans we conceived.

The past rarely predicts the future, but it often determines how we approach the future.

As we compiled this list, we were struck by how many of the items are linked to one another. The list incorporates items from other stories in this issue and from a review of 20 years of Federal Computer Week’s history. We look at 20 things—laws, policies, technologies, strategies and people — that influenced the past 20 years of government information technology.

Some of the items pre-date the birth of Federal Computer Week. We included them because their influence has continued throughout the magazine’s first 20 years. The order of the list and the items on it are our own. We welcome your comments at [email protected].
— Christopher J. Dorobek

20. Raines’ Rules
Raines’ Rules didn’t start with such a name. Franklin Raines, then director of the Office of Management and Budget, first proposed them in October 1996 in a memo titled “Funding Information Systems Investments.” That name wasn’t as memorable as Raines’ Rules, which became the memo’s moniker. That document attained great importance in guiding how agencies purchased information technology.

The rules outlined how OMB would expect agencies to comply with the IT Management Reform Act of 1996, which became part of the Clinger-Cohen Act. They established criteria for evaluating major information system investments. The rules codified a belief that the government should use commercial software before creating its own and emphasized that IT systems existed to support an agency’s mission.

19. PDAs
When personal digital assistants first made their appearance, few anticipated a world in which employees are so addicted to the Research in Motion BlackBerry that people now fondly refer to it as the CrackBerry. BlackBerries and other PDAs are much more than status symbols today. They have become essential to how the government does business.

One of FCW’s early stories on PDAs referred to Apple Computer’s Newton, which the article said “shook up the industry.” Even back then, people sensed the potential of handheld computers.

“Handhelds also have emerged as a popular tool for collecting data in the field, where information can be entered into the handheld then downloaded into a full system later,” wrote Gerald Lazar in the July 27, 1998, issue of FCW.

“Several vendors, such as Palm Computing, are pushing handheld devices as replacements for pen and paper in the maintaining of address books and similar organizational tools,” he wrote.

Few, however, could have foreseen that just a few years later, after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, BlackBerries would be essential for communication.

18. Telework
The concept of being able to work from somewhere other than the office is possible because of IT. In recent years, telework has become an essential tool for creating continuity-of-operations plans and keeping and attracting employees.

The concept was first mentioned in FCW June 2, 1997, in a profile of Lt. Col. William Golden, then director of command, control, communications and computers for the President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.

“Golden’s initiatives to bring his organization online and set up e-mail has made it possible for staff members who sometimes work until nine or ten o’clock at night to telecommute from home,” wrote John Monroe. “In cases like this, technology means more than bits and bytes. It means improving the ‘quality of life’ for office staff.”

Even in 1998, the government was considering telecommuting as a way of keeping critical employees. As agencies reprogrammed their information systems for the Year 2000 rollover, they needed federal workers. Telework let many of those retired employees come back to work part time.

Today, FCW refers to telework rather than telecommuting, but the concept lives on.

17. Seat management
Seat management was a precursor to the trend of outsourcing IT. The concept, probably more accurately described as desktop outsourcing, was for vendors to supply a full suite of desktop IT tools. It freed agencies from having to install or take ownership of PC hardware, software and peripherals.

FCW first mentioned the concept in July 1997 as the General Services Administration was getting ready to award a seat management contract. Leading the initiative was John Ortego, then deputy assistant commissioner at GSA’s IT Integration service and acting director of GSA’s Federal Computer Acquisition Center.

Later, the Navy used the seat management concept for its Navy Marine Corps Intranet program, and it outsourced the entire land-based IT infrastructure to EDS.

A decade later, outsourcing continues to be controversial.

16. Search
Twenty years ago, no one would have thought that a simple function such as search would be so essential. A small company called Google changed all that. FCW first mentioned Google in an April 2001 profile of Greg Redfern, then director of the Defense Department’s Computer Investigations Training Program. Redfern said Google was his favorite search engine.

Search engines developed to help people manage an explosion of electronic information. Few organizations have as much data to manage as the federal government. Its early efforts to make government information accessible were called WebGov. They were part of the Clinton administration’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government initiative. The idea was to build a Web portal that could help people find information they need.

“The WebGov project is designed to provide a single source for the public to use when searching the Internet for data from the federal government,” said Greg Woods, the initiative’s deputy director.

WebGov evolved into the FirstGov portal. FirstGov was born when Eric Brewer, a University of California at Berkeley computer scientist and founder of the search engine company Inktomi, offered millions of dollars to defray the cost of developing FirstGov.

15. Electronic records
As more work is done electronically — archivists refer to such material as being “born digital” — it was inevitable that electronic documents would be considered federal records and would need to be stored and saved.

E-mail archiving became the subject of a much-watched lawsuit in 1996, when Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C., interest group, sued Archivist John Carlin about a National Archives and Records Administration rule that allowed agencies to delete electronic records from agency computers if a paper copy had been created. NARA eventually won the lawsuit, but the case raised the visibility of the problem of dealing with electronic records.

In 1996, FCW columnist J. Timothy Sprehe wrote, “The problem is that most agencies are running parallel and duplicate records systems, one on paper and one electronic. The majority of records are now created electronically, yet agencies almost universally print out the electronic record and save the paper version as the record copy. Both paper and electronic versions get sent to NARA, so the agency ends up choked with work and spends half its resources on space.”

Today, NARA continues its efforts to create an Electronic Records Archives, which the agency hopes can become a comprehensive and systematic way to preserve electronic records.

14. The PC
Power to the people — that’s what the PC brought. Rather than requesting reports, people could download them to their desktop computers.

Computers traditionally ran in back rooms out of sight. The PC made technology accessible and even understandable.

Sometimes IT executives grew frustrated with PCs because they led people to believe that the computer sitting on their desk was theirs rather than a tool to help them do their jobs more effectively. Read more about the role of the PC.

13. The network
Yes, networks existed before 1987. But only in the past 20 years have we begun to understand the power of the network. DOD is shifting to network-centric operations. Visions of information sharing that were once science fiction concepts are increasingly in the realm of the possible.

The increased dependence on networks creates new vulnerabilities, however. Information security has always been important in government. But in a networked world, the difficulty of securing electronic information is much greater. Read more about the role of networks.

12. Storage
The power and growth of technology is more visible in recent advances in storage technology. Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s famous law states that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every 24 months. For storage advances, 24 months might be too conservative.

Greater storage requirements drive increases in storage capacity as people find they need to keep just about everything.

Like so many technologies, storage is a double-edged sword. As storage capacity increases while storage formats shrink, data becomes more portable. Portable data creates greater security risks, exemplified by data losses last year at the Department of Veterans Affairs and elsewhere. Twenty years ago, no one had to worry about a federal employee having the personal data of millions of people. Today, a thumb drive can store that much information.

11. National Performance Review
The National Performance Review, later called the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, was created in 1993 as part of the Clinton administration’s effort to improve agency management. Led by Vice President Al Gore, NPR was focused on “creating a government that works better and costs less.”

Technology was at the heart of NPR’s objectives. Many of the successes came from using IT to streamline processes.

Under NPR, the government created the Hammer awards to recognize federal programs that operated efficiently. The award was based on a legendary $436 hammer, which came to embody government inefficiency. One NPR initiative allowed people to electronically receive Social Security payments, thereby saving time, printing and mailing costs and reducing the number of lost or stolen checks each month.

10. Competition
A series of laws and policies — now broadly referred to as procurement reform — changed the way the government bought everything. Those changes, however, were particularly important for IT, which had been hamstrung by a bureaucratic process mandated by the Brooks Act. That process resulted in agencies buying outdated equipment at noncompetitive prices.

The goal of reform was to mirror the private sector’s procurement practices as much as possible. Increased competition was essential to that plan because it would create innovation while reducing costs.

Today, more than any time in the past 10 years, those reforms are coming under renewed scrutiny amid questions of whether deregulation went too far.

9. Year 2000
Some people thought it was a joke when they heard that computers could crash when trying to understand that 1999 had turned to 2000. But the Year 2000 bug had important implications for information systems. The federal government spent $8.5 billion to prepare its older systems for the Year 2000 rollover, according to a February 2000 report by the Senate’s Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem.

The problem existed because it had been the practice of computer programmers to represent the year as a two-digit number. People feared that computers would misconstrue 2000 for 1900 and stop working.

In some ways, the IT community was too successful. The lack of problems caused an uproar amid allegations that the government blew the problem out of proportion. The Senate special committee’s report, however, concluded that the Year 2000 effort was time and money well spent.

“Minor consequences aside, Y2K has spurred the modernization of our nation’s technology base and positioned it for continued economic growth,” the report states. “In addition, the Y2K readiness experience has taught us valuable lessons about the nation’s technological dependencies, interconnections and vulnerabilities. These lessons will prove invaluable as Congress examines new policies addressing critical infrastructure protection and future information technology issues.” Read more about the Year 2000 bug.

8. FTS 2001
Few areas have undergone more dramatic change than the world of telecommunications. Even the definition of telecom has evolved in the past 20 years. GSA is largely responsible for providing telecom services to the government. FCW has covered nearly three generations of federal telecom history, beginning with GSA’s FTS 2000 contract, followed by FTS 2001 and, most recently, Networx. Telecom has been one of FCW’s most enduring stories. Read more about that history.

7. Microsoft Windows
The government often worries about creating standards, but it didn’t have to create an operating system standard. Microsoft provided that standard when it created Windows. The company introduced the operating system in 1985 as an add-on to MS-DOS so that its product could compete with Apple’s popular Macintosh interface. Windows became the dominant operating system in government. But as Microsoft launches Vista, it faces more competition than it has in years. Read more about Microsoft Windows.

6. E-government
The current Bush administration made e-government a cornerstone of its IT plans. But e-government initiatives began during the Clinton administration with NPR. “Government will be transformed by electronic means for doing business and provide the public with better access to the government, similar to how Amazon.com transformed bookselling,” NPR officials said in April 2000.

In 2002, President Bush signed the E-Government Act, which requires agencies to make wider use of the Internet to provide information and services to citizens. Read more about the E-Government Act.

5. The Clinger-Cohen Act
Lawmakers passed the Clinger-Cohen Act more than a decade ago. Named after former Rep. William Clinger (R-Pa.) and former Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine), the act became a seminal law for IT management.

In addition to creating the post of the chief information officer, Clinger-Cohen seeks to improve the way the federal government acquires and manages IT. It requires agencies to plan major IT investments, enforce accountability for those plans, use standards and commercial products whenever possible, and adhere to modular programming when developing systems. Read more about Clinger-Cohen here and here.

4. E-mail
If PCs put technology on the desktop, e-mail was the PC’s killer application. In April 1996, David Barram, GSA’s administrator at the time and a former Apple Computer executive, announced an initiative to give agency employees e-mail by Flag Day.

“Using this tool called the Internet, companies, governments and individuals around the world are inventing exciting new ways to do their work, improve service to their customers and communicate with each other,” Barram said at the time. “I believe that use of the Internet will be a key competitiveness factor for GSA in the coming years and that GSA employees must begin to learn how this new resource can change the way we do business.” Read more about e-mail.

3. CIOs

With the recent proliferation of C-level positions, it’s difficult to remember a time 20 years ago when the federal CIO position didn’t exist. Most federal IT officials were information resources managers.

The Clinger-Cohen Act created the CIO position, which has been evolving ever since. CIOs now play an important role in helping agencies fulfill their missions.
People still debate whether CIOs have a seat at the table, but most now agree that it falls on CIOs to ensure that information systems provide measurable benefits to federal agencies.

The CIO Council established a governance structure for federal IT executives. Back in June 1996, when the nature of the council was being debated, FCW wrote, “The emerging Chief Information Officers Council could become either an influential force in information technology management and procurement or a ‘debating society’ that shares war stories over lunch, depending on how seriously its members take their charge.”

2. 2001 terrorist attacks
Many people say the 2001 terrorist attacks changed everything. No single event has had a greater impact on the country and the government. We still feel the effects of those events more than five years later. The attacks led to the creation of the Homeland Security Department. They also put information sharing higher on agencies’ priority lists. Sharing information was no longer an option — it became a necessity.

1. The Internet
The Internet was not created in the past 20 years. As a concept, it dates to the 1960s. But the Internet is one of those things that changed everything. In PowerPoint presentations, the Internet is depicted as a puff of clouds pierced by lightning bolts. Magic, in other words. We all have occasionally wondered, “So how did I do my job before the Internet?”

The task of the government IT community has been to harness that magic, which has transformed nearly every federal function. Read more about the Internet.


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