In a crisis, America turns to….COBOL programmers and fax machines

 Information technology installed in the Social Security Department By Everett Historical Shutterstock ID 237228895  

Social Security Department punch card sorters. (Everett Historical/

The time has come to invest in the federal government's IT infrastructure. Over the last five years, government has taken significant steps intended to modernize federal IT, spearheaded by passage of the MGT Act in 2017 and the 21st Century IDEA in 2018. These bills and others were intended to drive IT modernization across the federal government and encourage agencies to embrace digital tools over antiquated paper-intensive processes. But despite our best efforts, we've learned over the last five weeks that more needs to be done to modernize government technology now and for the future.

This past weekend, news broke out of New Jersey that Governor Phil Mattingly was in dire need of COBOL programmers to help keep the state's four-decades old unemployment system from crashing due to the surge of claims coming as a result of the economic impact of coronavirus. New Jersey's problems are not all that different from some key federal agencies, including the IRS, which is currently faced with a need to get cash payments out to hundreds of millions of people in record time while relying heavily on outdated systems, including some that are COBOL-based.

With nearly the entire federal workforce and a vast majority of contractors forced to work from home as a result of the coronavirus, our IT infrastructure has been pushed to the limit over the last five weeks. We've all heard the stories about employees not being able to access agency virtual private networks, or looking for workarounds due to network latency because there are just too many people trying to access the network at the same time from remote connections. Needless to say, working around IT security controls runs the risk of leaving federal networks vulnerable in this time of crisis and should be avoided whenever possible. However there remains a need to balance security, with the need for people to get access to the tools necessary to do their jobs.

I was impressed with Congress's response to the telework needs of federal employees, with the recently enacted CARES Act having provided additional funding for telework, remote access and bandwidth upgrades for more than 15 agencies, including major investments at DOD and VA. This investment, while critical at this time, is likely just a down payment toward addressing the needs of remote federal workers. The coronavirus response is likely to forever change the way all of us, including federal employees and contractors work. More needs to be done to ensure that federal employees have access to the tools they need to work remotely, in a crisis and beyond.

With that said, Congress is now considering "phase 4" of their coronavirus response and thus has an opportunity to build on the down payment made in the CARES Act, setting federal and state and local information technology on a better path forward. When developing this next phase, I believe Congress must consider these three principles for IT modernization.

Support the needs of remote workers

Congress must provide federal agencies with additional funding for the acquisition of technology needed to support remote work. This should go beyond telework as it has been traditionally defined to include: IT infrastructure, adoption of cloud computing and cloud-based collaboration tools, an embrace of online training, including cybersecurity training, and the transition of in-person and paper-intensive processes to digital, allowing for better connectivity, workflows and the electronic approvals necessary to support a remote workforce.

Provide states with IT funding to enable program implementation:

What we are seeing in New Jersey is likely to be repeated across the country as it is the state governments that are charged with disbursing the vast majority of the more than $2 trillion provided by the federal government through programs like Medicaid and Unemployment Insurance. Congress must provide a mechanism by which states can use a small percentage of the funding provided to upgrade their IT systems and infrastructure.

Address cybersecurity and secure connectivity needs

No agency should have to choose between cybersecurity and connectivity. Congress must provide additional funding for the cybersecurity needs to remote federal employees, including investing to provide increased bandwidth, enhanced VPN, and cloud-based security. Expanding the capacity of and funding for FedRAMP, the gateway to secure cloud in the federal government, would also help address these needs.

Congress has a unique opportunity to make a critical investment, at a critical time to set government information technology on a strong path forward. By getting out ahead of what we now know will be a dramatic change in the way people work going forward, they can ensure we not only continue to respond effectively to the current crisis but are more prepared for the next one.

About the Author

Mike Hettinger is founder and president of Hettinger Strategy Group and former staff director of the House Oversight Government Operations Subcommittee.


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