Trump’s IT modernization moment

The need to modernize federal IT transcends politics, one industry exec argues, and we already have the tools to make it happen.

Photo credit: George Sheldon / Shutterstock.com

Regardless of whether the Trump administration is more concerned about the cost of government or how well the government delivers services to citizens, the state of federal IT will be a critical contributing factor.

We have finally reached the conclusion of a presidential campaign that seemed like it would never end. Thankfully, we can now focus our energy on the future and what steps the incoming administration must take to improve how government operates. And regardless of whether the Trump administration is more concerned about the cost of government or how well the government delivers services to citizens, the state of federal IT will be a critical contributing factor.

In the past two decades, the government has worked diligently toward modernizing its IT systems. Laws have been passed, policies have been issued, and conferences have been attended. But 20 years later, federal IT still needs a major overhaul. From agency to agency, missions are overwhelmingly underserved by modern IT thanks to paper processes, old systems, blue screens -- you name it. A CIO recently told me that IT needs to become fun again. I translate that to mean: We need to finally start delivering modern solutions for the missions.

The U.S. government spends nearly $80 billion on IT every year, and an extraordinarily high percentage of that money goes toward funding legacy systems. In fact, a recent report from IDC Government Insights shows that some agencies allocate upwards of 90 percent of their IT budgets to operations and maintenance.

Despite those eye-catching figures, federal agencies are still prone to recurring cyber breaches and other security threats, and spending on maintenance for old systems has proven to be ineffective in advancing missions. In the age of innovation, why is our country still draining its budget on antiquated technologies? If that makes you depressed, don’t be. There is hope.

Technology moves at its own pace, apart from political opinions and priorities. The federal IT community is on the precipice of revolutionary change in the way that applications are built and managed. Old systems are going to be rebuilt, and mission needs will be met with systems that leaders thought they would never see. That IT revolution is already underway in major agencies, including the Agriculture, Interior and State departments.

As we move forward into the next administration, politics will be less material to the state of federal IT than the grassroots movement of the community itself. More and more agencies will adopt modern cloud-based application platforms to take giant strides in transforming their IT portfolios. The federal IT revolution will be driven by the nerds, not the politicians. The incoming administration will govern during a period of monumental IT change, and it will happen with or without policies and politics. The nerds are on the right side of IT history.

The crux of IT modernization: Removing outdated systems

Although the federal government has introduced new IT initiatives over the years, we have yet to see a major push to modernize the applications that run the government today and deliver services to citizens. Significant legislation, guidance and brain power are only recently being applied to this problem.

As U.S. CIO Tony Scott said, “In a world where every five years you can get double for every dollar you spend, if you’ve missed four or five of these upgrade cycles, you are spending five, six, 10 times more to keep old stuff going. ... Those [who] think they are saving money by not upgrading are deluding themselves.”

The Trump administration has already praised Scott’s ideas and direction. Again, IT transformation is bipartisan in nature. There is a true awakening to the concept that agencies that continue to drain their budgets in support of antiquated legacy IT systems will cause more setbacks for themselves and their missions. Stakeholders in government are rapidly embracing the reality that the technologies and architectures of the past 20 years are wildly out of date, and modern cloud-based application platforms offer a path to modernization, savings and security.

Follow their lead: The path to modernization

For years the only path to building and deploying systems was to stitch together a Frankenstein of technology layers that ended up being expensive to implement and staggeringly expensive to maintain. Cloud-based application platforms are changing all that. Agencies can now deploy new systems faster and cheaper than they realize. A 10-year implementation now takes one to two years. Deployment budgets of $100 million are now $10 million. Cloud-based application platforms are changing the industry by eliminating the traditional barriers to IT modernization: time and money.

Although federal agencies have collectively been viewed as slow to modernize their IT systems, there are myriad success stories from agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, USDA, the General Services Administration, the State Department and the Small Business Administration -- all of which are adopting new, modern models for building and deploying mission-critical applications.

Those agencies should be praised for their successes and professional bravery and held high as examples of modern application delivery in action. Politics, fiefdoms and legacy preferences are being cast aside for the benefit of the missions and their respective budgets. A new era is upon us.

Looking to the future: Survival of the fittest

During the next administration, IT leaders will be tasked with dramatically reducing costs while improving security. Five years ago, that seemed impossible in the federal sector. Today, the IT community is awakening to the possibility of true application modernization and its revolutionary benefits. As with all periods of great change, IT professionals and companies unwilling to adapt will not survive, while those that evolve and provide innovative solutions will be heralded as leaders of IT change.

To ensure that the process happens seamlessly, senior government officials should ask every IT leader one simple question, “Can you develop a plan that reduces IT spending by 50 percent?”

Many IT leaders will scoff at the question, but the answer is out there and within reach. The easiest way to start trimming IT costs is by replacing legacy application architecture with modern application development platforms. By sourcing the help of low-cost, state-of-the-art application platforms, agencies will end up with well-managed and secure IT systems without the need for huge vendor contracts. Using platform technology enables IT developers to build and deploy at a faster rate, and it enables agencies to retire legacy burdens.

We are living in a sea-change moment for federal IT. It is not a change in the way the game is played -- it is a whole new game. Vendors that don't adapt will die off. Vendors that lead this IT revolution will grow and succeed. IT leaders who lead will be rewarded as heroes who shepherded in a once-in-a-lifetime era of technology change.

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