Why this IT modernization push could actually work

A former agency CIO suggests that the key pieces are finally falling into place.

Shutterstock image: wall of gears.

The federal government has been working toward finding ways to modernize its IT infrastructure for decades. The challenge has been that 75 to 80 percent of the federal IT budget is spent on operations and maintenance, leaving little for innovation and modernization.

Outdated IT infrastructure severely restricts the government’s ability to provide citizens with a 21st-century experience, leading to a negative perception and ultimately, lack of trust in government. To change these perceptions, the quality of government services, including digital services, must be improved to meet the expectations of the public while reducing the cost of providing those services. 

However, this begs the $99 billion question: How?

Government needs to migrate applications to the cloud using innovative approaches such as DevOps and agile methodologies. As a former federal CIO, I can share that some in the administration have described the federal IT environment as an “Atari game in an Xbox world.” For example, many agencies use systems from the 1960s. No successful business can serve its customers effectively and operate using aging infrastructure. 

A big piece to the modernization puzzle is the Modernizing Government Technology, or MGT, Act. The House passed the bill, and it now awaits consideration in the Senate. According to the bill’s leading sponsor, Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), said: “Our government needs to be able to introduce cutting-edge technology into our workforce and to increase efficiency and decrease cost. This legislation is an innovative solution to strengthening our digital infrastructure ... while saving billions of dollars.” 

The MGT Act would allow agencies to put the money saved through IT efficiencies into working capital funds to modernize their technology, which can be accessed for up to three years. It would also create a centralized $250 million fund, managed by the General Services Administration and overseen by the Office of Management and Budget, that agencies can tap into for modernization. Projects would be selected that have documented cybersecurity challenges, can easily shift to shared services, the cloud or other more modern architectures, or are especially costly to maintain.

To add to the momentum, President Donald Trump also signed an executive order on May 1 creating the American Technology Council to help the government “transform and modernize” its digital services. This, coupled with Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, provides CIOs with the unique opportunity to modernize their technology. They have the need, the incentives and the mechanisms to drive efficiencies and improve the citizen experience. 

The only path forward for restructured agency missions

What does all this mean to government agencies? They are in a unique position to revisit their missions and structure the organizations and workforce to improve government services and improve efficiency.

On April 24, OMB issue memo M-17-22, “Comprehensive Plan for Transforming the Federal Government and Reducing the Federal Civilian Workforce,” which requires agencies to rethink their missions and the size and quality of the staff they employ. Plans were due to OMB by June 30, highlighting agencies plans to improve the performance of their workforce and a draft plan for restructuring agencies. After conversations with OMB over the summer, the final Agency Transformation Plans will be submitted in September. 

The government has many critical responsibilities and services that need attention. Given the large size and scope of many agencies, next-generation IT will be the only reasonable path for achieving their missions.

For example, I served as CIO of the Federal Trade Commission, which has a mission of protecting the consumers from unfair, deceptive and fraudulent practices in the marketplace and promoting marketplace competition to ensure consumers benefit from low prices and high quality of goods. 

In 2015 alone, the FTC processed more than 7.1 million consumer complaints, saving consumers over $3.4 billion through its merger actions and over $717 million through its consumer protection law enforcements.

Innovative and modern technologies such as Cloud, DevOps and agile software development will enable the FTC to respond even faster to the needs of the consumers and the marketplace to ensure greater consumer safety and improved competition in the marketplace. The demand for the FTC’s services requires a highly agile, flexible, secure and on-demand infrastructure to respond to the needs of the public and modernization of its IT becomes central to the delivery of its mission.

Based on my experience leading transformations and efficiencies across the federal government and my passion for improving services for citizens, I believe we are truly at a historic juncture to significantly improve U.S. government services through modernized technology and innovation. Now, more than ever, the time has come for a joint partnership between the federal government and the private sector to begin this journey of transformation, together.

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