What to watch in federal IT in 2020

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Rather than make a series of buzzword-filled predictions about federal technology in the coming year, I recently looked at the 2020 federal IT budget to discern a number of trends that we can interpret as signposts for what to expect in 2020. I’ve outlined a few below.

IT organizations shifting focus to modernizing programs

OMB has now updated major IT policy guidance and focused on the Cloud Smart Strategy, and the CIO role is shifting from running the infrastructure to identifying how technologies benefit mission performance. Consequently, this will be the year when IT governance practices drive a new wave of mission benefits, rather than just better control over IT infrastructure spending. The result: This year, agencies will gain and share understanding on how to smartly use cloud computing: e.g. taking advantage of rapid advances in serverless computing and low code/no code application development tools. While Technology Business Management is a necessity, the primary improvement driver will be the OMB M-19-23 evidence-based decision-making initiatives calling on agencies to use tools like AI/machine learning, data analytics and third party/Commerce Department data sources.

Modernization will not take over Operation & Maintenance as the primary IT spending focus in 2020

The Federal IT budget is changing very slowly.Based on what I read in the 2020 Appropriations Act, this will be a year of experimentation, plan development, incremental modernization efforts and cybersecurity improvement. Overall IT spending should go up slightly, as the roughly 4% increase in federal program budgets always pull in more IT support. But no civilian agency received anything near $1 billion for modernization. The Technology Modernization Fund, with $25 million in 2020 appropriations, reflects Congressional skepticism that agencies will be able to pay back the borrowed funds. That skepticism is warranted because the return on digital technology is now due to productivity and cybersecurity gains, not IT infrastructure savings. The recent Unisys Cloud Success Barometer™ survey of 1,000 commercial and government executives found that government security gains from moving to the cloud were about on par with private companies, but government was far below in cost savings and productivity improvements. Respondents said incorporating cloud in the business strategy is key to seeing benefits, underscoring the need for investments that provide strategic benefits as opposed to legacy systems maintenance.

Cybersecurity will be a growing area of focus.

With election security and ransomware concerns growing, Congress increased the proposed budget for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to $2 billion. CISA’s major initiatives include relationship building and the Trusted Internet Connection 3.0 guidance, encompassing key concepts of zero trust, cyber kill chain and risk management for cloud. Moreover, the National Security and Telecommunications Advisory Committee’s Cybersecurity Moonshot is now well underway with workshops set up around country and the first in November 2019 at Auburn University’s McCrary Institute. Moreover, the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification V.1.0 is nearing release and expected to be inserted into government contract clauses before end of year. This year’s National Defense Authorization Act provisions indicate strong Congressional support. It is good that Congress is paying close attention and is open to hearing from stakeholders as the process unfolds. Finally, the Solarium Commission, with tight congressional involvement, will report fast track recommendations in early spring.

While IT governance has been strengthened, as measured by the FITARA scores, it is not clear that the appropriators agree on the role of the CIO, with only the CIOs at the Departments of Agriculture and State required by the appropriators to concur/approve IT systems spending, and CIO-specific budget authority is still generally a fraction of total agency IT spending. I hope that they are supportive of the CIOs taking a leadership role in the shift from infrastructure to mission application of IT.

Another key item is that more than 40% of IT spending is up for contract renewal over the next two years, based on IT analyst assessments. That will create the opportunity for major shifts to modern computing platforms, including the shift of funding IT as a capital expense (i.e. hardware and software) to IT-as-a-Service contracts built using the Cloud Smart strategy with a mix of serverless computing and low code/no code applications.

About the Author

Mark Forman is the executive vice president at Dynamic Integrated Services. He was U.S. administrator for e-government and information technology at the Office of Management and Budget from 2001-2003, and has served in a number of executive roles in industry, including with Unisys and SAIC. Forman won the FCW Eagle Award in 2002.


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