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How commercial tech supports government COVID response

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The COVID-19 crisis has showed us how prepared (or, perhaps better said, not prepared) government at all levels was to meet the unprecedented challenges from citizen demand for services and basic operations. What very quickly became evident -- especially in the massive surge of unemployment insurance claims and shifting millions around the country to remote work -- is that our essential administrative infrastructures are still dependent on aging, often obsolete legacy IT systems. We are still at the beginning of digital transformation.

Almost 10 years ago, the Cloud First Strategy charted a path toward a modern, streamlined federal government for the 21st century that relied on innovative commercial cloud technologies. Subsequent efforts, including passage of the Modernizing Government Technology Act (MGT Act) which created the government-wide Technology Modernization Fund (TMF), as well as the White House's Cloud Smart Strategy, has built a foundation for the federal government's approach to IT modernization.

So, how are we doing? The short answer: we have made some progress, but there is a long way to go. Last year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), issued a report analyzing federal agency transition to cloud computing. The results: only 17% of civilian and 3% of DOD systems were running in the cloud.

Fast forward to today, as governments around the country try to adjust to new work requirements that rely heavily on the ability of employees to work remotely. For many, this means increased investments in resilient, trusted solutions, including cloud technology are needed to support that transition. For others, they must resist the temptation to simply "modernize" outdated or obsolete IT systems -- worse yet, develop custom government off the shelf (GOTS) solutions that rely on open source projects that provide 'zero cost' software, but also provide no support guarantees.

These development projects are destined to become the COBOL of the future, wasting precious resources and leaving agencies with systems that are difficult to secure and costly to maintain. So, where do we go from here?

It's a two-fold endeavor: government agencies must focus on addressing the especially problematic, obsolete legacy systems that are often vendor-specific and ruefully outdated while enabling a digital transformation. The key for success is a hybrid cloud whose IT architecture incorporates elements of workload portability, orchestration, and management across two or more environments.

This is not just about cloud for cloud's sake. It's about selecting the right cloud environment to meet an individual agency's needs now and in the future. For some government agencies that might be a single public cloud. For others it may be a multi-cloud environment, with a mix of public, private and hybrid clouds, working together to ensure the agency can most effectively meet its mission. Others might be focused on containerization and ensuring the portability of data throughout and across their cloud environments. These varying requirements are an evolution from earlier stages of cloud computing, where the differences between public clouds and private clouds were often defined by location and ownership.

In the next few months, we have a unique opportunity to further IT modernization at the federal, state and local level. A recent letter from six technology trade associations, including the Information Technology Industry Council and CompTIA laid out principles for IT modernization in response to COVID-19. These principles include:

  • Supporting the deployment of commercial technology to assist federal, state and local governments in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Targeted funding to those federal agencies on the front lines of the COVID-19 response to ensure they have the necessary resources to support remote work.
  • Funding for state and local governments to support the programmatic implementation of high risk and critical programs like Medicaid and Unemployment Insurance, including allowing for a percentage of the funding provided to these programs to be used to support IT requirements.
  • Doubling down on support for the Technology Modernization Fund, including providing relief from payback requirements to increase agency flexibilities in using the fund in response to the pandemic.

By now we've all seen the stories about aging technology, with some key systems supporting the IRS and state unemployment agencies more than 50 years old and well beyond their expected end of life. We've also seen stories about digital tech teams swooping in to assist federal and state agencies in the immediate response to the pandemic. The reality is that in the long-term, to ensure we are better prepared, we must resist the temptation for the government to build its own technology solutions and ...increase investment in commercial technologies that enable hybrid cloud.

Let's seize this opportunity through funding for the Technology Modernization Fund, which received $1B in the House-passed HEROES Act and encourage federal, state, and local governments to work together to better leverage commercial technology solutions to enhance mission and service delivery.

About the Author

Mark Bohannon is vice president, government affairs at Red Hat.

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