Funding, Budgeting and Workforce Limitations Impede Federal IT Modernization According to Experts

Published: July 22, 2020

Federal Market AnalysisCloud ComputingCoronavirus (COVID-19) PandemicDigital GovernmentInformation Technology

Federal IT modernization is imperative to providing better service to citizens, lowering costs, gaining efficiencies and warding off cyber threats according to industry experts who testified Monday before the House Oversight Subcommittee on Government Operations.

The hybrid hearing looked at the issue of legacy IT systems, the challenges they present to federal agencies, and the urgent need to modernize federal IT systems, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

In Chairman Connolly’s opening statement, he said, “The federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has exposed a fundamental weakness it has yet to fix: legacy IT systems.” He went on to say that “those in need [citizens] have had their misery exacerbated by broken IT infrastructures that have prevented them from receiving timely support.” Connolly advocated for agencies to “quickly retire their legacy systems and prioritize modernizing IT, like adopting cloud computing technologies through FedRAMP.”

The subcommittee heard testimony from four industry witnesses and their views on the best way for agencies to tackle modernization efforts:

  • Gordon Bitko, Senior Vice President of Policy, Information Technology Industry Council (ITI)
  • Matthew Cornelius, Executive Director, Alliance for Digital Innovation (ADI)
  • Steve O’Keeffe, Founder, MeriTalk
  • Hana Schank, Director of Strategy, Public Interest Technology, New America

Bitko, currently with ITI, served as the FBI’s CIO for part of his career. He believes the federal government needs to adopt policies that enable easier use of digital services and modernization. “Federal technological transformation can only happen if there is consistency in and dedication to providing both funding and addressing the policies and practices that restrain innovation and modernization in government information technology.” Bitko supports migrating to commercial providers, measuring projects on outcomes, and developing clearly defined objectives then partnering with industry to achieve them. He also believes that FITARA and the ITDashboard need to be updated to meet modern realities.

Cornelius, now working for ADI, previously served as a senior technology and cybersecurity advisor at OMB. He believes that the legacy IT problem is not just systems, but a cultural problem.  He also stated that there’s little alignment between federal procurement and financial management with commercial best practices for IT. Agencies who fared well during the COVID crisis were those who had made prior investments in cloud and modern infrastructure. Cornelius believes the federal government should follow a “commercial first” framework. “Government must prioritize the acquisition of commercial off the shelf (COTS) solutions, which require no customization, are easier to embed across the agency’s IT enterprise, are more secure, and cost substantially less than bespoke agency-specific systems.”  Cornelius also testified that current budgeting and appropriations processes restrict agencies’ abilities to modernize.  

O’Keefe, the founder of Meritalk, brought five recommendations that he believes would enable federal IT modernization:

  1. Complexity is the enemy – “Federal CIOs are mired in a pea-soup fog of complexity…There’s FITARA, MGT, TMF, FedRAMP, DCOI, CoEs, and CAP Goals…” O’Keefe thinks that everything should be simplified and plugged into FITARA.
  2. FITARA for the future – O’Keefe believes FITARA should be real-time and added to the ITDashboard.
  3. Eliminating appropriations roadblocks – The government needs to provide more funding for TMF.
  4. Fight IT sprawl – He applauds CARES Act funding for IT, but cautions that the government needs to beware of the sprawl and shadow IT that it could create.
  5. Next CIO should come from inside Federal IT – He believes that someone who comes from outside of government creates a massive learning curve.

Schank, from New America, offered a real-life example of how current federal IT prevented a mother in need from receiving a pandemic stimulus check. She wanted to highlight that federal IT effects real people and does not just result in website crashes. It can fail to deliver services to the people who need it most. Schank thinks that the problem is not just that legacy systems are 50+ years old.  She believes there are two bigger issues:  

  • Systems were built for a time when people didn’t use computers/mobile devices from home
  • “When government implements a policy, that policy implicitly relies on existing IT to be delivered.”  Congress needs to take the delivery system into account when enacting the policy. 

Schank thinks the solution revolves around a modern technology workforce and policy decisions that include a tested delivery plan. She believes that senior leaders need to understand and be involved in the technology and that the federal government needs to bring in more senior technology talent.

The Q&A session from the subcommittee reiterated a number of the challenges to modernizing federal IT such as the lack of funding, erratic budgets and appropriations, limited IT workforce capacity, the need for IT training, workforce culture and the complexity of current IT policy initiatives.