How Are Agencies Modernizing Tech via Their TMF Funds?

The Energy Department, USDA and HUD are moving forward on projects to bring key systems into the 21st century.

For federal agencies implementing Technology Modernization Fund projects, the pace can seem comparable to that of a software download on a home computer. Momentum starts at a crawl. Then, toward the middle of the process, it picks up speed and takes mere seconds to complete.

Agencies with TMF-approved projects are in the beginning stage of that trajectory. But project leaders say they expect to soon start picking up speed.

The Modernizing Government Technology Act established an initial $100 million allocation for the TMF in fiscal year 2018. The fund received another $150 million for the current fiscal year. A proposed fiscal year 2020 budget appropriation didn’t include any more TMF money, but Congress has since added $25 million.

The TMF essentially serves as a loan fund, with the expectation that the improvements will save money that agencies can use to pay back the government over a designated period of time. It allows agencies to replace and update old legacy systems that are expensive to maintain but require significant investment to improve. 

“It’s getting over that capital expenditure hump,” says Energy Department CIO Max Everett.

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Energy Department Moves to Cloud-Based Email

Even before receiving a $15.2 million allocation from the TMF, the Department of Energy had shifted 19 of its on-premises email systems to the offsite servers of the cloud. TMF money allows it to accelerate the conversion of 26 remaining email operations.

The agency experienced the benefits of the cloud with the earlier move of its headquarters email system. Each independent email operation needs hardware refreshes, third-party software license updates and security fixes — plus its own data center hosting, Everett says. 

“Those costs all started to drop once we made the move over,” he says.

The agency is working on a contract with an outside provider to do the cloud conversion for the remaining DOE offices and national laboratories that had not made the move. The procurement process got held up by a timing issue, Everett says, but once in place, it will get the project rolling.

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USDA Seeks to Streamline Operations

For the Agriculture Department (which was the first agency to go through the General Services Administration’s Centers of Excellence IT modernization program), the TMF also accelerated an existing plan to consolidate two divisions of the agency’s Farm Production and Conservation mission area. The project brings together the Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service to share information, streamline operations and get information to farmers faster and more easily to help them implement better practices

Between them, those divisions oversee 22 programs involving reams of paperwork, says Chad Sheridan, service delivery and operations branch chief for the USDA’s Information Solutions Division. “I think they’ve got 113-plus different forms or ways of obtaining information,” he says.

The first step was a major analysis and re-engineering of business processes, which has taken about six months since it began in September, Sheridan says. With a $10 million allotment from the TMF, the USDA has spent much of the initial $4 million on outside consulting teams to examine the way those two operations work and ultimately design digital tools to help them work more efficiently and with greater ease for the end users: the farmers.

Consulting teams built around four major programs have completed the business process mapping and are assessing the platforms those programs use to determine whether they are the most effective.

“So, we’re going to be about nine months in when we start banging on keyboards,” Sheridan adds. 

HUD Aims to Get Off Mainframes and into the Cloud

These are complex projects requiring meticulous and methodical back-end work. The Department of Housing and Urban Development received $20 million from the TMF to migrate its UNISYS mainframe system to the cloud. With the first $5 million of that allotment, the agency awarded a contract to take its largest operation off the mainframe.

It’s the Computerized Homes Underwriting Management System, CHUMS, which collects borrowers’ personal data to determine eligibility for a Federal Housing Administration-insured mortgage.

“It has about 1.2 million lines of code,” says HUD CTO Mark Hayes.

The HUD team has turned off about 400,000 lines of code that are no longer needed and will convert the rest to the cloud. As of March, Hayes says, they have moved about 10 percent of that remaining amount.

Additionally, HUD has moved and tested its relational database. The hierarchical database is more challenging and will take longer, but he expects to complete that by late summer. 

The contractors also completed about 50 percent of the test scripts for the program to confirm that the converted code is functioning properly, Hayes says. Initial tests of access speed on the cloud’s SQL database show much improved performance over the mainframe.

“I feel very comfortable where we are right now,” he says. “We’re a little over six months into it, and I feel like we’ve made tremendous progress.

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Energy, USDA, HUD Plan Next Steps in Modernization

The USDA plans to request a portion of the remaining $6 million to develop a “minimum viable product,” Sheridan says, meaning an update that he can deliver more quickly to provide some initial improvements but without taking the time and resources required for a huge overhaul. He hopes the teams have identified and started work on that product by June. 

“The target right now is to focus on what things we can have in the business that can change,” he says. “There’s an economic benefit to getting something in the hands of our customers earlier.” 

At DOE, sections that have made the email switch can help others with lessons learned, which will make the process faster going forward, Everett says. Locations with mission-critical systems will come onto the cloud later. These include the power-marketing administration that oversees electricity transmission and big hydroelectric operations that serve customers in the West.

“People rely on them to keep the lights on,” he says. 

Labs with national security missions, like Sandia National Laboratories, require proper security in place before conversion to mitigate risks and move quickly so as not to disrupt operations, he explained. 

“Two years from now, all of the departments that we think are appropriate will be on cloud email,” Everett says. 

HUD was approved last month for the second round of $5 million, according to Hayes. “We were thrilled with that,” he says. “We felt it was a validation of all of our efforts.”

He and other agency leaders say they have yet to identify future projects they would like to tackle with the TMF. For now, HUD hopes the existing projects will help prove the fund’s value as a resource to keep federal government operations current.

“You feel that pressure to succeed for the benefit of the TMF,” Hayes says, “so it can be there as a benefit for other agencies.”

Vito Palmisano/Getty Images
Apr 24 2019

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