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A call for visionary investment

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In the midst of the greatest pandemic in a hundred years, when IT underinvestment and antiquated infrastructure has been exposed, we unfortunately continue to hear from some that the solution is to starve investment. This same cynical crowd always seems to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The bottom line is that the federal government's consistent failure to prioritize IT modernization and program delivery prevented the public from receiving the assistance Congress authorized to help the nation weather one the worst global pandemics and economic crises of our lifetime.

More on IT Modernization

Rep. Connolly is the opening keynote speaker at FCW's Oct. 6 IT Modernization Summit. Click here to see the full agenda and register for this online event.

For a different take on the Technology Modernization Fund, see this Sept. 23 commentary from Citizens Against Government Waste's Deborah Collier.

The victims of this narrow type of thinking are not just numbers on a spreadsheet to me. They are the millions of Americans who relied on the federal government for assistance during the coronavirus pandemic. They are our neighbors desperately trying to get their economic impact payments to put groceries on the table. They are small business owners trying to access Small Business Administration loans to keep their doors open and employees on payroll. They are middle-class families trying to get their tax refunds to make next month's rent or mortgage payment.

My colleagues and I have heard thousands of these stories. Unfortunately, the public policy response was there, but our IT couldn't deliver.

On April 15, 2020, the IRS began distributing $290 billion in direct cash payments to millions of Americans as part of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Stimulus (CARES) Act. It was reported, however, that the IRS delayed providing nearly 21 million people with stimulus checks because the agency could not find accurate direct deposit information. Among those who did receive payments, however, were an estimated 1.1 million payments totaling $1.4 billion to people who were deceased. For those who had to be issued a paper check, they were told it would not arrive until September. To this day, according to the Government Accountability Office, 9 million Americans still have not received their stimulus checks.

SBA's E-Tran system was another example of a good policy flawed by technological investment. Tasked with facilitating more than $600 billion in loans and grants, SBA's system for submitting applications for the Paycheck Protection Program shut out hundreds of thousands of small businesses from obtaining desperately needed assistance. E-Tran was designed to process an average of $20 billion in loans per year. Because of the economic uncertainty prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, the site received hundreds of thousands of applications amounting to $670 billion over two installments. During the first round of funding, the PPP ran out of funds after just 13 days with the E-Tran system experiencing periodic outages. During the second round of funding, applicants dealt with website crashes and glitches with others unable to access the site's homepage altogether.

At one point during the peak of the pandemic, 40 million Americans had filed jobless claims. It was reported that for every 10 people who successfully filed for unemployment, an additional three to four were unable to submit claims online. This is because many states' unemployment systems still operate on outdated technology. For example, both New York and Connecticut's unemployment systems are more than 40 years old, and New Jersey's systems still uses a programming language dating back to 1959. In my home state of Virginia, certain types of unemployment claims were unavailable until August due to necessary IT updates.

All of these failures are a direct result from Congress not investing in long-term, robust federal and state IT modernization.

Congress enacted the Modernizing Government Technology Act to provide agencies with additional funding mechanisms, like the Technology Modernization Fund, which was designed to serve as a source of funding for agencies to remove and replace legacy systems. Unfortunately, one of the primary challenges facing IT modernization is the lack of sustained and robust investment in the TMF. But the TMF has been chronically underfunded since its inception. Even former Federal CIO Suzette Kent called out this underfunding as illustrative of the small bore thinking that has prevailed when it comes to making IT investments.

At my subcommittee's July 2020 hearing on federal IT modernization, Matthew Cornelius – former lead for the TMF at the Office of Management and Budget – indicated that during his time at OMB, there were more than 60 project proposals totaling more than $500 million in requested funds from the TMF, even though Congress had only provided the TMF $150 million over 3 years. Existing funding currently fails to meet the needs of federal agencies. The scale and size of the legacy modernization issues plaguing federal agencies cannot be met with superficial ventures.

Despite the fact that the TMF has been underfunded since its enactment, agencies that have taken advantage of the program have still been able to invest in much needed improvements. For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development received $14 million to migrate five of the agency's most critical business systems from an on-premise mainframe database to the cloud. According to HUD estimates, the code modernization and migration will save the agency $8 million annually.

Astute federal and private-sector leaders understand truly transformative modernization that will help the federal government serve all Americans requires substantial, multi-year investments. Not a piecemeal approach. This small, narrow thinking is what drove us into the challenges exposed in the pandemic and will doom us to the same future if we don't address IT investment now.

Investing in IT modernization is not an either-or proposition. This pandemic has presented Congress a choice: We can put our head in the sand and pretend these failures didn't happen, or we can take action to be prepared for the future.

About the Author

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) is the chairman of the Government Operations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

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