Fed IT suffers under divided government

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A new study puts some hard data behind the perception that a divided political environment in Washington hurts the government's investment in IT.

In a research paper published on Oct. 21, Min-Seok Pang, an assistant professor of management information systems at Temple University's Fox School of Business, said there is evidence that national politics has a significant impact on agencies' IT investments.

"We find that a federal agency is more likely to make capacity-building IT investments when its chief executive is appointed with legislative approval, when the federal government is more united, and when it is ideologically more moderate," Pang wrote in his paper "Politics and Information Technology Investments in the U.S. Federal Government in 2003-2016."

For the study, Pang tapped a large-scale dataset of IT investments at 135 federal agencies from 2003 to 2016. He concluded that to effectively pursue strategic initiatives in major capacity-building IT, agencies must have compelling policy mandates that are firmly backed by Congress.

Pang told FCW that new IT development is often risky, and if a project fails, it can damage the careers of federal IT managers. "To be successful, [IT investment] needs multiyear policy and budgetary support that [doesn't follow] the election cycles," he said.

According to his study, the success of IT investments largely depends on three factors: legislative support for the agency head, whether one political party controls Congress and the White House, and an agency's ideological characteristics.

For instance, when the Senate takes more than a year to confirm the head of a federal agency, that agency's share of new IT development is on average 4.97 percent lower than agencies whose chiefs are confirmed swiftly, the study states.

When the Senate and the House are controlled by the president's party, investment in new IT development is 8.32 percent higher than when the opposition party holds a majority in both chambers, according to the study.

Pang also speculates that agencies with more liberal or more conservative missions spend less on new IT development and more on maintaining legacy systems than those in the middle. Agencies such as the Labor Department and the Environmental Protection Agency seek to advance social or regulatory policies, and Pang considers them "liberal" for the purposes of his study, while agencies such as the departments of Homeland Security and Defense are "conservative."

The study states that the heavily decentralized nature of federal IT systems is another complication that hampers meaningful IT investment. Pang recommends elevating the U.S. CIO position to be a Cabinet-level secretary, with the associated authority and responsibility for the federal government's digital transformation.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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