CIO Scott pushes $3.1B IT fund as Congress probes legacy tech

Agencies have spent almost $23 billion on legacy IT over the past three years, according to reports to Congress. Is a revolving fund the answer?

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Obama administration officials want Congress to back a revolving fund to modernize legacy IT systems. The goal is to kick-start projects with money agencies will pay back into a fund administered by the General Services Administration. In this way, $3.1 billion in initial funding would support upwards of $12 billion in modernization spending over a decade.

A bill to raise the money, introduced by Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), has attracted 20 co-sponsors so far. But supporters of the Information Technology Modernization Act tilt strongly to the Democratic side. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the architect of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act, is the lone Republican backer.

Nonetheless, U.S. CIO Tony Scott is optimistic that there will be a debate on Capitol Hill this year about the bill. The administration is working closely with Congress and other parties involved in "trying to find creative ways to fund it," Scott said at the ACT-IAC Management of Change conference in Cambridge, Md.

If the bill is going to succeed, it will probably have to get past the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) is so far more than a little skeptical. He has publicly referred to the idea as hogwash.

On the other hand, the committee has been taking a hard look at the problems posed by legacy IT. Scott and several other federal IT executives, including Defense Department CIO Terry Halvorsen and IRS CTO Terry Milholland, will testify about the problems of unsupported and out-of-date technology systems during a May 25 committee hearing.

In advance of that hearing, the committee requested an inventory of legacy technology from the 24 agencies governed by the Chief Financial Officers Act. All those agencies except the Department of Homeland Security responded to the committee's requests. A staffer told FCW that agencies reported more than 550 unsupported software or operating systems, and the government is employing more than 3,400 IT staffers who specialize in programming languages needed to maintain legacy systems, including more than 1,000 Cobol specialists and more than 600 Fortran coders.

Furthermore, the government has spent $23 billion over the past three years on operations and maintenance for legacy and out-of-support systems.

"I agree that there's been way too much spent on legacy IT," Scott said. "But the key thing we all have to understand is that all the money that's been spent has already been spent, and it's been spent on the wrong things," Scott said. Now he wants the conversation to center around "the best way to fund this, not whether we should do it or not."

Rich Beutel, a former House staffer and a key drafter of FITARA, told FCW that Scott needs to make the business case to lawmakers that $3 billion will make a difference. Revolving funds were a feature of early versions of FITARA that passed the oversight committee, and Beutel added that the "concept was endorsed and voted by many of these folks...who are now expressing skepticism about it."

Mark Forman, who served as the first federal CIO under the title of administrator of e-government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget, said one strategy is to give agencies an incentive to surrender control over budget and programs.

"There has to be a balance between how much you want to put in a seed capital and how much governance you want to tell the agencies not to spend their money," he said.

Beutel anticipates a demand for bipartisan agreement on legislation after the presidential election and said there might be some movement during the lame-duck session or the appropriations process. "This bill is so technical...that it could be done in the lame duck," he added.

He also believes that a focus on the cybersecurity risks of legacy systems would help convince members of Congress. It is important to stress the financial benefits of moving to the cloud, and he added that Scott should be on Capitol Hill almost every day selling this to Congress.

Forman said Scott does not need to constantly lobby lawmakers, but OMB must put the appropriate emphasis on the IT fund in its ongoing appropriations negotiations.

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