The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Yes, the Government Still Uses Floppy Disks

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


As technology marches forward, the federal government not only cannot keep up, it also remains mired in the past, despite spending more than $80 billion annually on information technology (IT).  A May 25, 2016, Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on legacy systems in the federal government found that agencies are using decades-old technology that includes floppy disks and nearly obsolete computer languages. 

These older systems are such a drain on IT spending that about 75 percent of federal IT spending pays for operations and maintenance of existing systems rather than new technology.  GAO noted that over the past seven fiscal years there was a $7.3 billion decline in funding for development, modernization, and enhancement activities. 

In 51 federal agencies, the systems are so old that more than 90 percent of their IT expenditures went to operations and maintenance in fiscal year (FY) 2015.  While that is a rather shocking figure, it becomes less surprising when the list of legacy items supported by taxpayer dollars include the following:  two 56 year-old Department of Treasury Master File systems (one for individuals and one for businesses), which are the authoritative data sources for taxpayer information; a 51 year-old Department of Veterans Affairs system used to track veterans’ benefits; and a 53 year-old Department of Defense system that coordinates the operational function of the U.S.’s nuclear forces, which runs on an IMB Series/1 computer, and uses 8-inch floppy disks for storage. 

Some of the older systems are written in assembly language code, which is difficult to write and maintain, and still operates on an IBM mainframe.  Antiquated systems at the Department of Justice and the Social Security Administration still use COBOL, a programming language developed in the 1950s and 60s, which is fast becoming obsolete in the business world.  Programmers for both assembly language code and COBOL are becoming increasingly scarce

On April 11, 2016, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) introduced an Obama administration proposal, H.R. 4897, the Information Technology Modernization Act, which attempts to tackle the daunting task of modernizing legacy IT systems in the federal government.  H.R. 4897 creates an Information Technology Modernization Fund (ITMF) that would be administered by the General Services Administration (GSA).  The legislation would authorize an initial $3.1 billion to fund the ITMF for fiscal year 2017 to help agencies transition legacy systems to more secure and efficient modern IT systems, including cloud platforms.  In addition, the bill requires federal agencies repay the amount borrowed from the fund in order to ensure the ITMF is self-sustaining.  The ITMF would continue to support modernization projects that could amount to $12 billion over the first 10 years.

While there is bipartisan agreement that older systems must be upgraded, there is disagreement over whether a new program or separate funding is necessary.

On May 25, 2016, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing entitled “Federal Agencies’ Reliance on Outdated and Unsupported Information Technology: A Ticking Time Bomb.”  Much of the hearing focused on budget concerns relating to legacy systems upgrades, and whether or not federal agencies were doing enough to retire older systems. 

In his opening statement, Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) noted more than 3,000 data centers have been closed, resulting in savings of $2.8 billion.  He suggested that additional resources to upgrade legacy systems should not be allocated before the cost savings generated by implementing provisions of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), which mandated that the federal government streamline federal IT purchases, continue to consolidate federal data centers, and modernize federal IT systems through greater use of cloud services, were realized.  In order to achieve those goals, FITARA set up guidelines on how to reduce spending on outdated systems, provided more budgetary authority to agency CIOs, encouraged greater use of cloud technologies, and proposed further data center consolidations. 

The IT systems used by federal agencies are too important to remain outdated.  Addressing the need to modernize many of these systems was one of the reasons passage of FITARA was so important.  A March 3, 2016 GAO report estimates that by 2019, the federal government could accrue a total savings and avoidances of $8.2 billion through data center consolidation cost savings and avoidances.  Therefore, rather than creating the proposed ITMF, the savings that can be achieved as agencies adopt FITARA requirements, including data center consolidations, should be reallocated toward improving and modernizing antiquated legacy systems. 

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