Government Agency IT Needs Modernization, Not Rationalization

The tumultuous period of COVID-19 lockdowns and the sweeping embrace of digital business practices afforded many organizations a window of opportunity and incentive to enact modernization of legacy IT systems. Based on a Capgemini survey, the number of executives equipped with the online capabilities to bring their systems up to snuff surged from 24% in 2018 to 60% in 2020. Conversely, multiple agencies within the U.S. government are saddled with expensive, sluggish systems that struggle to manage critical functionality—and there’s little evidence that modernization is high on the pecking order.

In fact, of the ten government agencies highlighted by the Government Accountability Office as sporting downright geriatric IT, only two have developed concrete plans for a comprehensive update. Eight crucial departments are complacent enough to simply kick the can down the road and hope for the best. The GOA’s evaluators determined that all ten are hemorrhaging money; the systems, some as old as 51 years, cost $337 million annually for operation and maintenance. A brimming budget might invoke political rationalizations, but excusing implicit security weaknesses for government information networks is a non-starter.

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The GAO’s appraisal was laid bare during a late-April hearing held by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Spending Oversight. The Subcommittee Chair, Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, said, “The American people pay the price of failing to modernize legacy IT systems. The United States government ranks among the lowest industries in customer satisfaction. Over the past year in particular, my office has received hundreds of messages from constituents struggling to access government services.”

As of June 2019, seven of the agencies had cataloged plans for modernization, but the process fell apart for all but two. The Department of Defense and the Department of the Interior outlined actual plans of action, presenting a delineated timetable with projections for the overall working cost and the process of deactivating existing technology. The other five, including Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration, cited low budgets and lack of leadership as the primary hindrances to necessary IT transformation. The GAO rebutted by pointing out that proper budget allocation was entirely possible, and furthermore an internal issue.

The departments of Education, Transportation, and Health and Human Services were unable to bring anything to the table in terms of official proposals. Each agency mustered up a pretext of having something in the pipeline. Education is undergoing a thorough IT visualization to decide which systems need to be replaced. Health and Human Services reportedly has contracts in place for a modernization initiative that’s yet to come to fruition. Transportation is relying on industry feedback to finalize its approach. Falling behind in IT competence is a slippery slope that affects not only each agency’s output and security, but the government at large. The onslaught of bureaucratic excuses does nothing to mitigate the risk of “cost overruns, schedule delays, and project failure,” as the GAO’s report states.