Some Federal Agencies Using IT More than 50 Years Old

Published: June 01, 2016

Information TechnologyInnovationIT ReformOMB

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee brought much attention to antiquated federal IT last week during a committee hearing about unsupported and outdated federal IT.

Committee Chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), used an 8.5 inch floppy disk to make a poignant statement about the state of IT in many agencies.  DoD still uses similar disks in its IT system that coordinates US nuclear forces. Chaffetz went on to state that the government as a whole uses more than 70 legacy programming languages, including COBOL and Fortran.


GAO’s Dave Powner testified about agency IT investments in legacy systems, basing his findings on a GAO report released the same day.

GAO’s research found the federal government spends the majority of its annual $80 billion IT budget on operations and maintenance of systems (O&M) rather than on development, modernization and enhancement of systems (DME).  In fact, agencies spend $7.3 billion per year less on DME investments than they did in FY 2010. 

The chart below shows the percentage of the IT budget that has been spent or is budgeted for DME vs. O&M from FY 2010- FY 2017:

In FY2015, 5,233 of the government’s nearly 7,000 IT investments were O&M spending activities as opposed to DME.  Agencies have increased the amount of O&M spending relative to their overall IT spending by 9% since FY 2010. In FY 2010, O&M spending was 68% of the total federal IT budget, but in FY 2017, agencies plan to spend 77% of their IT funds on O&M.

The shift from DME spending to increased O&M spending has not escaped OMB’s notice.  OMB contributes this trend to the following factors: 

  • Supporting legacy hardware costs more over time.  
  • Costs to maintain systems with older programming languages increase over time because programmers are increasingly difficult to find and thus are more expensive.  
  • When agencies are uncertain how to classify an investment they default to reporting it as O&M.  
  • Agencies tend to categorize investments as O&M because they attract less oversight, require reduced documentation, and have a lower risk of losing funding.  

According to Osama Malik, a principal with Booz Allen Hamilton who spoke with the E-Commerce Times recently, legacy systems used for mission-critical tasks have a way of self-perpetuating themselves.  Over time, system documentation is lost and the handful of federal employees who maintain institutional knowledge of the system, eventually leave. The system still works, but no one knows how.  Without documentation, if a portion of the system is rewritten or ported to a more modern architecture, it could break the rest of the system.  It’s easier to just keep maintaining it as is even though that becomes increasingly more costly as time goes on. 

Retired federal IT executive Bob Woods told Federal News Radio, “these systems that are long in the tooth are a mix of old and new technologies, which makes it hard just to modernize them the way current systems can be updated with new and faster servers, or new software code.”

What’s the Answer to Modernizing Federal IT?

The White House believes it lies in a $3.1 billion IT Modernization Fund (ITMF).  The proposed revolving capital fund would provide agencies with funds to modernize legacy IT systems and require them to pay back the funds as they realized savings from the IT improvements. 


According to Federal CIO, Tony Scott, the ITMF would “better align with practices from the private sector, where significant IT investments are often presented to a corporate capital committee for approval, and require a viable business case that demonstrates sound architecture and measurable outcomes, such as lower life-cycle costs and improved performance.”


According to Woods, an agile iterative approach is the only rationale tactic from a technical perspective.  “When you get down into it, you have to layer it and do a triage and take the ones that are easiest to convert and replace, and that have the highest return on investment for making change and do those in priority order,” Woods said. “Eventually, you may break up into modules, which can be maintained individually.”