The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Tech CEOs Step Up for Taxpayers

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.

Today's meeting of the White House Office of American Innovation is being attended by 18 private sector technology experts, including the CEOs of some of the most innovative and successful companies in U.S. history. Their expertise is welcome and necessary.

To show how important the effort to address the government's technology problems is to the White House, today's meeting is being attended by President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner (who is the head of the Office of American Innovation), National Security Advisor General McMaster, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, and six other senior advisors to the President. The secretaries of Treasury, Homeland Security, and Commerce are there, along with Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.

Americans deserve to receive the same level of digital services from the government that they receive in the private sector. The cost of providing this information must be reduced, while government IT systems must be made more secure.

The tech leaders meeting at the White House know how to build and maintain modern, cost-effective IT systems. And given the proper parameters, they could play a major role in making that happen in federal agencies.

Unfortunately, right now the government spends 75 percent of its $80 billion IT annual budget on operations and maintenance of existing legacy IT systems. As Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) Director of Technology and Telecommunications Policy Deb Collier pointed out in her March 17, 2017 Swineline blog post, "According to a May 25, 2016 GAO report, 51 federal agencies have IT systems that are so old that in FY 2015, more than 90 percent of their IT expenditures supported operations and maintenance.  Ancient taxpayer-supported legacy systems include two 56-year-old Department of Treasury Master File systems; a 51-year-old Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) system used to track veterans’ benefits; and, a 53-year-old DOD 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. The CBO report further noted that spending on operations and maintenance has been on a steady increase over the past seven fiscal years, resulting in a $7.3 billion decline in development, modernization, and enhancement activities over the same period."

CAGW's keen focus on these issues dates back to President Reagan's Grace Commission, which was chaired by CAGW co-founder J. Peter Grace.

As Deb Collier and I wrote in our 2014 book, Telecom Unplugged: Ushering in a New Digital Era: "In his 1984 book, Burning Money, The Waste of Your Tax Dollars, that summarized the Grace Commission’s findings, Peter Grace described the technological ignorance pervading the federal government. At the time of the book’s publication, the average age of a government computer was 6.7 years; the average computer used by a U.S. business was three years old. Government computer systems were incompatible and required service technicians specifically trained to maintain the outdated equipment. The extra bodies added $1 billion to the federal payroll over a three-year period. Meanwhile, in the private sector, IBM’s General Systems Division updated its computer technology, saving $360,000 in the first six months after installation, and the Boeing Military Airplane Company’s new word processing system saved $483,000 over a nine-month period. In the 30 years since Mr. Grace published his book and co-founded CAGW with syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, the federal government’s technological ineptitude has persisted."

Many of these ongoing problems were noted in Deb's March 2017 WasteWatcher article, in which she wrote, "For the second consecutive time, the 2017 GAO [Government Accountability Office] High Risk Series report included the management of IT acquisitions and operations. GAO found that 'agencies still need to improve their capacity to successfully manage IT investments by fully implementing the CIO [chief information officer] authorities described in FITARA [Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act] and ensuring that program staff have the necessary knowledge and skills to acquire IT. Further work is needed to establish plans to modernize or replace obsolete IT investments.' For these and many other reasons, CAGW included IT modernization in Critical Waste Issues for the 115th Congress." 

Taxpayers should no longer have to put up with absurd examples of wasteful IT spending, such as the 1,600 pages of Department of Defense rules for travel. CAGW's comments on that program include the September 28, 2004 Looking Glass Report, "Defense Travel System: The Twilight Zone of Travel," and my September 29, 2005 testimony on the program before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. They should also not have to continue to put up with excessive paperwork burdens, despite the existence of the (failed) Paperwork Reduction Act, and spend 35 hours annually to fill out government forms, as Sam Baskins of the American Action Forum stated in his House Small Business Committee testimony on March 29, 2017.

The meeting today will address analytics, big data/fraud, cloud/infrastructure, cybersecurity, purchasing and contract reform, and other issues that are essential to fixing the IT problems throughout the federal government.

President Trump has a cabinet filled with "disruptors" who have had success in managing large organizations. They know how to tap the expertise of this prominent group of tech CEOs, including Amazon, Apple, IBM, Intel, Oracle, and Microsoft. Taxpayers should have more confidence in this effort than they have had about past attempts to fix the government's IT problems, and the CEOs who have stepped up for taxpayers should be thanked for their work.
 

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