Government’s Impending Technology Crisis

The next administration will have to deal with legacy systems that pose potential security risks and place vital capabilities at risk.

The federal government is failing to adequately invest in new information technology, instead spending billions of dollars a year operating and maintaining computer systems that in some cases have components dating back to the days of President John F. Kennedy.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the system used by the Internal Revenue Service to update taxpayer accounts relies on 56-year-old, low-level computer code that is difficult to write and maintain. The Veterans Affairs Department tracks claims for veteran benefits and eligibility using a suite of COBOL mainframe applications that were developed more than five decades ago. And the Pentagon coordinates the operations of our nuclear forces, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, through a 1970s computing system that uses 8-inch floppy disks.

Such legacy systems pose potential security vulnerabilities, place agency capabilities and performance at risk, and are increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain. And because of the increased maintenance expense, there are limited funds left to modernize and innovate.  

Agencies with legacy systems are well aware that they need to come into the 21st century and devote more resources to replacing, not patching what they have. IT professionals in government have been trying to move in this direction, but budgeting, contracting, governance processes and occasionally Congress have dragged down the effort, resulting in more than 70 percent of the government’s $89 billion IT budget devoted to maintaining the status quo. 

Federal Chief Information Officer Tony Scott has said legacy IT systems represent “a crisis bigger than Y2K.”  The difference is that Y2K had a fixed end, but with the legacy systems, we do not know when the system will fail to deliver.

The presidential transition teams need to define the government’s information technology needs, how those needs relate to the improved delivery of services to the public and how modernization will enhance implementing the priorities of the new president. The next administration must be ready to embrace IT modernization on its first day in office.

According to a recent survey, just 48 percent of federal IT managers said their legacy applications are completely capable of delivering on today's agency missions, and only 32 percent said that they will be able to deliver the mission five years from now. That is hardly a vote of confidence in the current state of federal IT — or much reassurance for the incoming administration.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to upgrade legacy IT, the narrative must be more robust than simply discussing system patches and cloud migration. To be effective, IT modernization must involve strategic needs and be addressed with an enterprise-wide perspective.

Further, agencies with legacy systems must seek ways to integrate new digital technologies with their old system to maximize their IT investments. More often than not, bringing IT systems into a digital-ready mode is an iterative process—one that doesn’t start from scratch. The key is to create flexibility and add new digital layers that supplement business functionally and support growth.

It is clear that during the next four years, the government will face many challenges related to modernization, including security, culture, funding and acquisition.

The Obama administration and Congress have sought to address some of these challenges with the passage in December 2014 of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act that changed how agencies buy new technology. The administration also proposed creation of a $3.1 billion fund to upgrade federal IT in its fiscal 2017 budget, but Congress has not taken any action on this plan.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has issued a technology and innovation agenda that includes a section on federal IT entitled, “Eliminate Internal Barriers to Government Modernization.” Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has not spoken about the issue.

The time is long overdue to begin aggressively implementing a broad IT modernization plan. This effort will be big and messy, and the scope will require a long horizon. But it must be a priority for the new administration and the Congress to make funds available to steer federal IT away from aging systems that absorb the lion’s share of the available money, and toward a modern infrastructure that will improve government operations. 

The risks and costs are far too great to continue to rely on the current outdated mission-critical systems.

Aaron Coats is a senior fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition, which aims to ensure our next president will be ready to govern on day one. Coats is on detail to the Partnership from Accenture Federal Services.