Only a moon shot can fix government IT

Instead of lurching from crisis to crisis, it’s time to euthanize our geriatric federal IT and start over

Only a moon shot can fix government IT
Credit: krheesy via Flickr

Most of us spend a fair amount of time waiting for our refund check from the IRS, but in 2011, one identity thief living in Lithuania got 655 refunds. Another 343 tax refunds went to a single address in Shanghai, China, and several thousand more went to five other addresses.

Bizarre as they are, these incidents are not freak occurrences. The IRS, like the rest of the federal government, is serving a 21st-century population of 320 million with a patchwork IT system built in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. No wonder it doesn't work very well.

The federal government spends $80 billion on IT, a sum larger than the budgets of all but five states. Of that $80 billion, about $64 billion is devoted to maintenance, says Tony Scott, the U.S. government's CIO. The system is composed of an astonishing 777 supply chain systems, 622 HR systems, 6,000 data centers, hundreds of operating systems, and an untold number of proprietary applications.

When it goes wrong, the broken IT system wastes more than money: It damages lives, like those of the 22 million government employees whose personal data was exposed through a breach at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the federal HR agency, or the tens of thousands of veterans waiting for months and even years for treatment because the insanely out-of-date systems at the Veterans Administration can't come close to handling the load.

"Never let a good crisis go to waste. The OPM breach may be the jolt we need to euthanize our geriatric federal IT," says Steve O'Keeffe, a longtime government IT pro and founder of the influential MeriTalk online community. "Now's the time for a moon shot in government IT -- a digital interstate-highway program. I'm going to call this .usa 2020 -- the idea to completely replace our aging federal IT infrastructure by 2020."

Far-fetched? Quite possibly. But well worth discussing.

The rhetoric is right: The feds manage IT poorly

Government "bureaucrats" are an easy and often unfair target for politicians. But poor management and personnel practices are in fact multiplying the serious problems caused by outdated and redundant technology.

An audit of the HealthCare.gov debacle released last week found that the public employees responsible for overseeing $600 million in contracts to build the foundation of Obamacare were inadequately trained, kept sloppy records, and failed to identify delays and problems that contributed to millions in cost overruns.

"The first question is why did CMS [the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services that administers Obamacare within the U.S. Health and Human Services Dept.] build this system in the first place? There are many established products and deployed solutions in the commercial space. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should. The government has hundreds of redundant systems -- why do we need more?" asks O'Keeffe. 

No doubt someone at the IRS was seriously not paying attention when all those checks went to Lithuania. I get that. But good practices start at the top, and without good leadership even good tools (which we don't have) won't help. "There are no standards for government CIOs or chief security officers," says O'Keeffe. "We need minimum standards and credentials for the people who fill those positions," he tells me.

Time for the feds to treat IT as a strategic issue

I know the supply of good IT workers is tight these days, but I suspect there are very well-qualified people who could be convinced to take CIO-level positions in the federal government. If that means waging a serious recruiting campaign to find them -- and becoming competitive in salary with Silicon Valley -- it would be an investment that would certainly pay off.

"The government is losing millennials rapidly. Taking a stand and trying to do something meaningful will attract the best," says O'Keeffe.

Earlier this year, Congress enacted the inelegantly named Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA). Passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, the act aims to empower agency CIOs to reduce waste in federal technology spending, in part by giving them budget authority over technology in their agency.

That's a good start. But a survey last month by MeriTalk underlined how deeply siloed information is within federal IT organizations. Although federal workers who are aware of FITRA think it's an excellent idea, Meritalk found, the study also revealed that only 39 percent of respondents knew their agency had a group in place to oversee its rollout, while 22 percent felt their agency had adequate resources to complete the task.

Federal IT sprawl: 6,000 data centers and counting

You could argue that there's no such thing as the federal IT system. In the literal sense, that's the case and that will probably never change -- nor should it.

But that's not to say that huge efficiencies can't be found. People in Washington know that, and they have made multiple attempts to find them. But it's been very slow going.

Despite passage of the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative, which was supposed to save billions of dollars by doing what its name implies, the number of federal data centers has increased by about 226 percent, ballooning from 2,094 in 2010 to 6,836 in 2013, according to testimony by the Government Accountability Office, the independent federal auditing agency.

I wrote the above paragraph in early 2014. Nearly two years later, there are still approximately 6,000 federal data centers in operation, according to reporting by Federal Times. That's not much of an improvement, and the poor showing may have encouraged former federal CIO Steven VanRoekel to depart unexpectedly.

The Army alone (not the Department of Defense it's part of) runs 100 separate operating systems within its data centers, says O'Keeffe, a mind-bending level of complexity that makes it even more difficult for the Army to modernize its networks.

Federal IT needs its own moon-shot program

The existing systems are so broken, numerous, and incompatible that the U.S. government needs to stop tinkering. Instead, it needs to jettison them and start over, designing and building them purposely in the same holistic way the country did when it decided to send astronauts to the moon. Federal IT needs its own moon-shot initiative.

The amount of money it would take to rebuild federal IT is hard to imagine, and O'Keeffe won't even venture a guess. But that doesn't imply he isn't serious. What's he trying to do is ignite a discussion that will go beyond the latest crisis, then fade away.

It may not be as headline-generating as building walls along the border, but it's a topic we should (yet probably won't) discuss during this election season. The stakes are really, really high.

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