Oct 25 2021

How Are Federal CIOs Thinking About IT Modernization?

The government’s Technology Modernization Fund is doling out hundreds of millions of dollars, but it will not be enough to transform IT across the government.

In the next few weeks, the federal government’s Technology Modernization Fund board is going to release another tranche of funding for IT modernization projects, according to Federal CIO Clare Martorana.

“I’d say within weeks,” Martorana said last week when asked during a Bloomberg interview about the timing of the next batch of funding awards, according to FedScoop. “We are working every single week on the portfolio. Right now we are looking at the backlog of projects, some of them less complete than others in their submissions.”

FedScoop reports:

The TMF Board has received more than 100 proposals so far from hundreds of agencies. Of those requests, about 75 percent of those are related to cybersecurity projects, according to Martorana.

Congress appropriated $1 billion for the fund as part of the American Rescue Plan Act. In late September, the board announced $311 million worth of funding for projects, several of which revolved around funding for zero-trust cybersecurity projects.

While the TMF is providing a vital source of funds for some badly needed projects, both Martorana and other federal IT leaders acknowledged that it, on its own, will not solve the government’s IT modernization challenges. Instead, the hope is that the projects funded will have a multiplier effect and give other agencies a model for their own initiatives or that they will benefit agencies that are not the direct recipients of the funds.

TMF Board Focuses on Scalable Projects

During the Bloomberg interview, Martorana said she was confident in the TMF project selection process because of the level of scrutiny the board is giving to the proposals.

“We’re adding a lot of rigor upfront to be able to choose projects that have the best chance of success and the best chance of us learning things from them that can be scaled across government,” Martorana said. The Office of Management and Budget aims to ensure that agencies that win funding have qualified people involved to ensure as many projects succeed as possible.

In an interview with FedTech, Deputy Federal CIO Maria Roat said the TMF board is focused on funding projects that can “move the needle” across the government as opposed to funding one-off projects that won’t be applicable at other agencies.

Roat noted that $1 billion does not go that far when looking across the breadth of the government and the need to improve core IT systems, cybersecurity, shared services and the customer experience for citizens via digital services.

As an example of a project that could have a ripple effect across multiple agencies, Roat pointed to a 2018 TMF award to the Labor Department to help it modernize an outdated, paper-based process the agency was using to issue certifications to employer applicants for H1B visas.

As a General Services Administration post points out, the system the Labor Department developed as a result of the funding uses GSA’s Login.gov platform as “a common authentication system to share and display user information and authoritative data between DOL, the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, and the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).”

The process is now completely digital and does not use paper forms, Roat notes. Instead of it taking 30 days, with forms being mailed back and forth, the process now takes about three days. The TMF board is looking for projects in “areas that are multiagency that will really be impactful as well,” Roat says.

DIVE DEEPER: How can DevOps benefit federal agencies?

Thinking Beyond the TMF to Modernize Federal IT

As useful as the TMF can be, IT leaders say that the fund alone cannot close the gap in helping agencies upgrade legacy IT systems.

“That money is going to go pretty fast. So, no, what’s in TMF is not nearly enough,” Energy Department CIO Ann Dunkin said during an Oct. 5 FCW event, according to MeriTalk. “IT modernization is by definition expensive.”

Dunkin praised the TMF as “a great idea,” but added that when it comes to “self-funding, it is a challenge because our mandate in IT continually increases.”

“The fact of the matter is is that putting money into the mission directly, providing money to citizen services, providing money to things that look more directly attached the mission is more attractive — it’s more attractive to Congress, it’s more attractive to department and agency leadership,” Dunkin said.

Martorana has also said that improving federal technology involves more than just an agency’s CIO office. Such efforts need the support of agency leadership across the board.

RELATED: What are the key challenges to federal digital transformation?

“Agency C-suite leaders need to be aligned to enterprise IT and cybersecurity modernization,” she said at the same FCW event, MeriTalk reports.

“As a former CIO, I couldn’t do my job without the support and alignment of the CISO, the chief financial officer, the chief acquisition officer, the chief human capital officer, the chief privacy officer of the agency and the senior leadership team,” she said.

“That C-suite for an agency really helped build an operational model, so that we can focus on the investment, deployment, and sustainment of our technology,” she said. “And it’s this C-suite model that will ensure agencies can deliver modern services to the public.”

Rick Kryger, deputy CIO for operations at the Department of Labor, said at the event that IT modernization requires “a multipronged approach” and CIOs need to look for opportunities “where they make sense.”

“Another part of it has to be the equation of building it into the business costs to be able to get that continuous investment, and it gets back to getting the business to understand the value,” Kryger said. “You kind of have to approach it on all fronts, and pursue opportunities, and continue that education with the business of the value that they get – that’s got to be a continuous component of it.”

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