Nov 17 2016

What Other Agencies Can Learn from the FCC’s Push on IT Modernization

Officials say the agency needed to overcome many difficulties to upgrade legacy technology systems.

The Office of Management and Budget is pushing for legislation and issuing official guidance to agencies to spur IT modernization efforts across the government, but the Federal Communications Commission is one step ahead of them.

The FCC has been lauded over the past few years for taking the initiative to upgrade outdated technology systems and move the agency into the 21st century, and for serving as an example for other agencies. However, FCC officials say their efforts were not without difficulty, and that much more work remains to be done.

Many agencies face similar challenges. According to an IDC Government report, about 78 percent of proposed agency IT budgets for fiscal year 2017 are going to operations and maintenance.

“We’ve only been able to achieve 50 percent of what the goal was” for the agency's IT modernization efforts, said Tony Summerlin, senior strategic adviser to the CIO of the FCC, at an industry event last month, according to FedScoop. He added that the FCC could make more progress “if the Hill stops hating on us and we get some money.”

“Everything that we bring in, I have to cut something that gives me at least one-and-a-half times that money back. And it has to be immediately. So it’s kind of a hard pull for us,” he said. In September, the House of Representatives passed the Modernizing Government Technology Act of 2016, and it’s unclear if the Senate will take up the legislation before a new Congress is seated in January.

While the MGT Act does not appropriate new money, it does authorize working capital funds at the 24 agencies governed by the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990. As FCW reported, these funds “drive IT modernization and bank the savings achieved from retiring expensive legacy IT and shifting to managed services.” The bill also authorizes a governmentwide revolving fund that the General Services Administration would manage.

Moving to the Cloud

John Skudlarek, the FCC’s deputy CIO, also noted that the agency has faced funding challenges. “I won’t pretend that anything we’ve done is easy, and I won’t even pretend it’s cheap,” he said during an event at the National Press Club in July, FedScoop reported. “But I absolutely think it’s the right thing to do, and we aren’t going to put this genie back in the bottle.”

When Summerlin got to the FCC in January 2014, he found that the agency’s staff were reporting “huge” problems with IT. The agency needed to overcome the inertia of maintaining legacy IT systems and contractor relationships, and “make everyone uncomfortable,” he said. That made migrating to the cloud a challenge but also presented an opportunity to upgrade.

“So the way you do that is, you rip everything out that they know and you replace it with something — the cloud — that they don’t know anything about and can’t touch,” said Summerlin, whose agency has fully embraced the cloud.

“The FCC, which should be embarrassing to the rest of the government, has more cloud implementations than any other agency,” he said. “But that’s how serious we are about it.” He said later: “My answer is, if you’re coming to talk to me about anything that doesn’t reside in the cloud, don’t come. Because I’m not buying any on-prem anything ever again. Period. Full stop.”

Getting Buy-In from Agency Leaders

To FCC CIO David Bray, the key to updating legacy systems is to make sure that everyone in an agency’s leadership understands the importance of IT and knows that it is their responsibility, not just the CIO’s. They need to be convinced that updating technology is critical to an agency’s mission.

“It was not just thinking about how you move things with speed to a better digital platform, but then also how can you make it easier for your stakeholders so they don’t have to figure out one of 18 different forms, and instead can answer seven questions,” he told Federal News Radio.

Agencies should be focusing on treating IT not as a technology issue that is separate and apart from delivering services to citizens, but deeply integral to that idea, with privacy and security built into how those services are delivered.

Bray started with small IT projects to gain FCC leaders’ trust and then expanded to major initiatives such as moving their entire data center to a public cloud.

Three years ago, Bray said, the agency was spending 85 percent of its budget on legacy systems, some of which were more than a decade old, according to Federal News Radio.

Now, Bray said, the FCC is spending about half of its IT budget on operations and maintenance of its systems, a marked decrease.

“This gave us enough fuel to modernize the remaining systems at the commercial provider to move commercial cloud platforms,” he said.

Bray added that by working with public cloud service providers for Software as a Servcie and Platform as a Service deployments, agencies benefit because CSPs maintain patches updates and security.

This shift has saved the FCC money and allowed it to invest in new technologies. It has also reduced the time it takes for the agency to test and deploy new services — down to days instead of months, Bray said.

“We are remixing existing commercial micro-services, whether it be software-as-a-service or platform-as-a-service, stitching them together with a very thin application programming interface (API) and then having a very flexible user interface on top of it. The very fact I can stand up a new prototype in less than two days is the big gain,” he told Federal News Radio. “In fact, there are some cases now where we go back to our partners at the FCC and they are like, ‘We weren’t expecting something for another three or four weeks.’”

Thomas Northcut/ThinkStock

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