When you’re in Washington, D.C., talk about IT modernization is tough to miss. You hear it in formal conferences and during the afternoon commute home on the Metro. The President’s Management Agenda, released in March, has set the tone.
The PMA focuses less on legislative solutions and more on administrative and technological choices. It demands better use of data in the decision-making process, and it requests the dismantling of bureaucratic silos and increased cooperation between agencies.
Most of all, it requires that the federal government give its customers — the American people — the kind of service they expect from private sector businesses.
This is a big ask. The IRS, for example, famously uses nearly 60-year-old code to run a key application, and this year, new hardware meant to support the old system failed — on Tax Day. The latest technologies are challenging to implement, but offer so much promise.
Take data analysis tools, which can help sort through the mass of data accumulated daily to uncover patterns that lead to better constituent services, smoother operations and innovative policy. Or look at sophisticated endpoint solutions that cover cloud-based third-party apps as well as on-premises servers; such technology can improve an agency’s ability to detect intruders before damage is done, instead of long after.
Even new security protocols can provide answers to old questions. The U.K. equivalent of Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance (DMARC) uncovered insights into attackers’ behavior that enabled the British government to harden cyberdefenses. In the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security collects similar information, but does not analyze it for big-picture patterns; Rep. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is among the legislators encouraging DHS to do so.
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USDA, HUD and Energy Embrace Digital Transformation
The desire and motive for change exists in the public sector as strongly as it does in the private sector. “Simply keeping the lights on has given way to the realization that technology can be a transformational force that can drive real business results,” states “The Modern IT Infrastructure Report” by CDW.
But transformation comes slowly. Only 38 percent of government IT purchases are transformative — the kind that support innovative technology — according to the CDW report. The bulk of IT buying happens on a basic, transactional level, mostly because agencies are limited by “legacy systems, tight budgets and traditional workflows,” the report notes.
Money could be less of an obstacle for agencies in the future. This summer, the Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Agriculture departments won awards from the new $100 million Technology Modernization Fund. With the additional money, the agencies were able to support cloud migration efforts and upgrades to customer-facing websites, projects underfunded in agency budgets.
In addition, alterations to the way agencies’ working capital funds operate have made more money available as well, although many feds are still not used to this very un-federal approach to spending. Agencies tend to operate on a use-it-or-lose-it mindset when it comes to cash; if they don’t spend it, the budgeting theory goes, they don’t need it.
The working capital funds, in their new iteration, give agencies the opportunity to use the savings gained through closing data centers or reducing duplication for other IT projects.
“Some folks can say that’s nibbling around the edges, but nibbling around the edges is better than nothing,” says Dave Powner, the Government Accountability Office’s former director of IT management issues.
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Agencies Search for Innovation on Tech Procurement, Hiring
The additional funding gives agencies more money to play with, but does not necessarily speed up the acquisition process. One example: The Interior Department is able to use nearly mint-in-box drones purchased by the Defense Department, but discarded because they were out of date for defense purposes before they arrived.
The General Services Administration is creating new ways for agencies to procure technology at the speed of mission, developing preferred-provider lists that can get cutting-edge IT in-house before it becomes obsolete. The year-old Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions contract, for example, gives agencies efficient access to technology under flexible terms.
And as agencies look for new ways to shop, they’re also searching for new ways to hire. The President’s Management Agenda calls for the construction of a modern workforce “through realigning, reskilling and retaining strategies.”
The Office of Personnel Management is already moving toward that goal, recently issuing a request for information on systems that will make it easier for workers to move from one agency to another, a practice that currently involves layers and layers of bureaucracy — and outdated technology.
While technology remains the challenge, for government, it will also be the solution.