Modernizing Federal Information Technology

By Deborah Collier

January 2017 WasteWatcher

President Trump has made it clear that he wants to make significant changes in how government programs are managed.  One of the best sources of the worst examples of wasteful spending for the president and his team is the Government Accountability Office (GAO) High Risk List, which every two years identifies agencies and program areas that are vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement.  In GAO’s 2015 report, improving the management of information technology (IT) acquisitions and operations made the high risk list for the very first time.  According to the report, “federal IT investments too frequently fail or incur cost overruns and schedule slippages while contributing little to mission-related outcomes.”

Most private sector companies utilize cutting edge technology and regularly update their IT systems in order to remain competitive in the marketplace.  The federal government does not exactly manage its IT in the same manner.  According to May 25, 2016 GAO report, 75 percent of the government’s $80 billion IT expenditures, which cover hardware, software, programming and development, is spent on operations and maintenance of existing legacy systems.

During fiscal year 2015, 51 federal agencies spent more than 90 percent of their IT budget on operations and maintenance.  Among the taxpayer-supported legacy systems are two 56-year-old Department of Treasury Master File systems; a 51-year-old Department of Veterans Affairs system used to track veterans’ benefits; and a 53-year-old Department of Defense system used to coordinate the operation function of the nuclear forces, which runs on an IBM 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 operate 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.

There have been efforts to alleviate this untenable situation.  On December 26, 2013, the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) was signed into law as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015 (P.L. 113-66).  On July 29, 2016, Congress passed the Making Electronic Government Accountable By Yielding Tangible Efficiencies (MEGABYTE) Act of 2016 (P.L. 114-210).  These laws are intended to help streamline federal IT purchases, increase data center consolidation, provide additional incentives to move toward cloud services, give agencies a centralized budgeting authority for IT acquisitions managed by a chief information officer, and ensure that software assets are inventoried to avoid costly duplication of software and equipment.

FITARA puts agency chief information officers’ (CIO) in the driver’s seat for all IT acquisition, planning and budgeting; and requires them to certify in their annual agency IT budget requests to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that the IT investments being made by their agencies are “adequately implementing incremental development.”  FITARA also codifies the use of PortfolioStat for tracking IT initiatives within federal agencies to ensure that programs will be delivered on-time and as promised in order to reduce the risk of failure before large amounts of funding is spent.  GAO’s high risk report made more than 60 recommendations to improve OMB and agency implementation of PortfolioStat that could result in nearly $6 billion in savings.

Building on FITARA, the MEGABYTE Act requires agencies to establish a comprehensive inventory of 80 percent of software license spending, as well as enterprise licenses; track and maintain software licenses to inform the agency’s software life cycle management; analyze software use; provide training to employees on software licenses management; and, establish goals for agency software license management.

On April 8, 2016, President Obama proposed an infusion of $3.1 billion into a revolving fund for agencies to use to upgrade their existing legacy systems.  On October 27, 2016, the administration issued guidance on IT modernization by recommending four key development phases for agencies:  develop updated strategic plans, identify and prioritize IT systems for modernization, develop modernization profiles for high-priority systems, and execute modernization profiles though budget planning processes.

Additional opportunities to modernize IT systems include the use of functions and program solutions that are already successful in other agencies, rather than wasting time and money creating an entirely new process or technology to perform the exact same task.  For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) tried and failed twice to develop its own financial software system.  On October 5, 2016, the department announced it would be utilizing the financial management IT shared services developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to replace its existing financial management system.  As the federal government increases the use of cloud technology solutions, similar IT sharing initiatives can be used rather than wasting taxpayer dollars duplicating systems that already exist in other agencies.

Federal agencies should avoid duplication and mismanagement of IT services and infrastructure, while implementing new and innovative methods of deploying IT across their departments, including the use of agile software development, cross-agency collaborations, and leveraging private sector practices to reduce costs while streamlining services.  Finally, Congress should direct annual IT funding to modernization projects that will enhance and improve the taxpayer’s experience, while providing much-needed, effective security against cyberthreats, and follow up with appropriate oversight to ensure that the budgets are being properly managed and allocated for the best possible solutions.

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