In October 1986, Elaine Penney of the 6th Missile Warning Squadron works in the computer room for the AN/FPS-115 Pave Paws phased array warning system RADAR.

May 13 2020

Technology Modernization Fund Provides Agencies with Cash to Improve IT

With loans from a special technology fund, agencies can afford to update more systems.

In the spirit of Marie Kondo, the celebrated organizing consultant who encourages clients to discard items that no longer bring them joy, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is cleaning old, unloved computer code out of its IT closets.

The purge comes with the agency’s migration of its legacy, in-house UNISYS mainframe system to the cloud, a project enabled with money from the Technology Modernization Fund. The TMF has $150 million that can be distributed to federal agencies for major technology upgrades to their antiquated systems and equipment.

Overseen by the General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget, the TMF serves as a loan fund. Agencies must pay back the money from the cost savings that their modernization projects generate. HUD, for example, projects $8 million in annual savings from its project.

The TMF provides “a pot of funds that does not impact your usual operations,” says Kevin Cooke, HUD’s deputy CIO. “This project is something we had wanted to do for years.”

Legacy IT System Gets an Update

Having extra, unneeded code is not uncommon; as IT departments update code and reprogram, they often hold on to outdated code in case they need it for some reason, explains Kathleen Cheeseman, HUD’s senior IT program manager.

“As regulations have changed, as business processes have changed over the years, code has been put off to the side but no longer used,” she says.

HUD is in the process of migrating five mission-critical systems from the UNISYS mainframe platform to the cloud. The largest of those operations, the Computerized Homes Underwriting Management System, processes single-family mortgage applications, from ­initial receipt through endorsement. The IT staff removed about 400,000 lines of unused code from CHUMS before migrating the remaining code to the cloud.

Since then, HUD has tackled the other four systems, which include two financial management systems: the Program Accounting System and Line of Credit Control System, which primarily process HUD grant disbursements. The systems are related, so the agency has merged them as part of the migration process, folding PAS into LOCCS and eliminating 80 percent of the code between the two, Cheeseman says.

Those systems that have not yet moved to the cloud will shed about 54 percent of their code prior to the move. The deletions will reduce the cost of the conversion itself and mean less space used in the cloud, Cheeseman says. The removal of obsolete code also makes the systems easier to modernize and maintain going forward, she adds.

VIDEO: Federal CIO Suzette Kent explains the government’s IT innovation agenda.

Government Pushes Modernization on Multiple Fronts

The TMF launched in 2017 with an initial $100 million allotment for projects. Congress added another $25 million for FY 2019, and the same for FY 2020. To date, the fund has awarded about $90 million to nine projects at six federal agencies.

HUD, for example, initially received $20 million from the TMF, which generated widespread support inside the agency and prompted HUD leadership to kick in some of its own money. As a result, the TMF reduced its total allocation to HUD to $13.9 million.

Jonathan Alboum, Former CIO, Agriculture Department
It’s not just modernization. It’s driving toward 21st century government.”

Jonathan Alboum Principal Digital Strategist for the Federal Government, ServiceNow

The TMF works like a venture capital fund for federal agencies. A project is vetted for its viability and potential for success. Those prospects depend on the agency having the right specialists in place.

“You need to talk about your team, your readiness for change,” says Jonathan Alboum, a former Department of Agriculture CIO and principal digital strategist for the federal government at ServiceNow. “They are looking at an organization’s ability to get the project done.”

The TMF works in parallel with the GSA’s Centers of Excellence program, another IT modernization initiative. The CoE program makes experts available to agencies that hope to invest in new technology but might not have the in-house proficiency to implement it.

Although agencies can participate in both the CoE and the TMF, they don’t necessarily use both programs on the same project. Both initiatives aim to solve the same problem, though: a lack of resources to devote to major modernization efforts.

For example, HUD was waiting for one of the outside contractors to meet a deadline for its project and asked for help from the GSA via the CoE, which stepped in to nudge the process. “They knew we were on a critical path for one of our projects,” Cooke says. “I can’t buy that kind of support.”

Together, the programs represent a two-pronged approach. The TMF provides money to pay for those efforts, and the CoE provides workers who have the technical know-how to get them going.

“You can see how these two things would work together,” says Alboum. “They’re separate things, but there’s a relationship around them.”

VIDEO: See how the General Services Administration helps agencies modernize their technology. 

Agencies Save on Costs Over Time via Upgrades 

The Department of Labor — which, with HUD and USDA, takes part in both CoE and TMF — recently became the sixth agency to join the CoE, focusing on a project to modernize its acquisition processes using artificial intelligence. 

At the same time, with TMF funding, the agency is also working on an electronic certification process for some types of work visas, which now require paper applications mailed to and sent back by prospective employers.

“Electronic labor certifications will be issued out of the Department of Labor and go to the employer like a boarding pass,” CIO Gundeep Ahluwalia said in an interview with Federal News Network.

440,000

The number of lines of unused code removed from one HUD program

Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

These old legacy systems are expensive to maintain — thus, the cost savings once they’re replaced — but the updates require such significant investment that agencies cannot pull the full expenditure from their annual budgets.

One lesson that HUD has learned from the process is to embrace, rather than resist, the oversight that the TMF requires, Cooke says. Agencies receive TMF money in increments and must meet certain benchmarks before the next round of funds is released.

That actually helps HUD stay organized and break the project up into manageable pieces, “which makes it seem not as daunting,” Cooke says.

The agency remains on track to complete the project by the end of March 2021, Cheeseman says.

HUD is documenting its TMF experience in a playbook that other agencies might use to convert their own legacy and COBOL-language systems to the cloud. The agency’s experts are working with their counterparts at Customs and Border Protection and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

For HUD, the benefits of migrating legacy systems from the UNISYS mainframe to a cloud-based platform goes beyond cost and operational savings. 

A cloud-based operation makes the agency more nimble. It can update its systems more easily, tweak programs to incorporate new policies and apply new technologies, says HUD CTO Jill Janecek.

“We can be more agile — we can respond to the business needs quicker,” she says, adding that modern technology is much easier to use.

The improved experience for the end user is the ultimate benefit of the TMF, Alboum says. 

“It’s not just modernization,” he says; the money lays the foundation for the agencies to engage more effectively with the citizens that interact with them. “It’s driving toward 21st century government. It’s driving toward a digital strategy and serving customers the way they want to be served.”

CmSgt. Don Sutherland, U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons