COMMENTARY

How tech will force the next shutdown

The partial government shutdown brought significant attention to border security, as well as the potential inability for federal agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service, to function in accordance with their mission. However, as both sides continue to argue about the compromise that was reached to avoid another stoppage, nobody is discussing the issues that will undoubtedly cripple many aspects of our government.

When looking at the current state of the federal IT landscape, 28 federal IT systems are at least 25 years old, and 11 are at least 35 years old, accordingly to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). To put that in perspective, the portable CD player was introduced in 1982; iPods were the next best thing in 2001; and today, we use miniature computers nearly three hours a day to not only listen to music, but to email colleagues, keep in touch with friends, and post selfies (are those still popular?).

As we approach Tax Day 2019, many Americans were concerned another shutdown might impact their anticipated refund checks. Well, in 2018, the IRS’ most important system — the 60-year-old Individual Master File — went down on Tax Day, affecting most of the agency’s public apps and prompting the acting commissioner to extend tax season an additional day. Even though we avoided another shutdown and the agency remains fully staffed, the system is in dire need of an upgrade.

Meanwhile, Veterans Affairs recently spent close to $2 billion over 10 years trying to implement an electronic health records system only to scrap prior efforts. In addition, according to the GAO, the Census Bureau is having trouble getting its new technology programs ready for the 2020 decennial count. These are just a few examples of the challenges currently impacting federal agencies.

Modernizing government is no longer a choice, it’s an imperative. The challenges are daunting and many, and careful planning is essentially because many legacy systems must remain operational as new systems are put into service.

However, according to the Federal IT Dashboard, 71 percent of government agencies’ IT spend in fiscal 2017 went to legacy systems operation and maintenance, leaving very little to address the actual problem – an unintentional government shutdown.

Agency chief information officers work hard to balance the mounting technical debt and lack of cost transparency while trying to make sense of the emerging technology landscape. Today’s agency CIOs ultimately have to balance priorities, using limited budgets and resources — effectively doing more with less. At the same time, the government and its agencies must carefully consider new and future technologies to ensure systems meet the needs of the citizenry now and well into the future.

These aforementioned examples are a symptom of agencies experiencing enormous disruption from the surge in the complexity of the IT landscape and huge technical debt. Old systems of record must coexist with new systems of engagement and process unexpected formats, sizes and sources of data. Information exchange has progressed beyond the web and intranets; many transactions occur on mobile devices and/or in the cloud. Meanwhile, employees, partners and citizens are demanding more and better ways to engage with the government.

Public expectations are changing faster than ever. We’re now amid the Fourth Industrial Revolution — digitization. With this comes various geopolitical, societal, economic and technological shifts.

Experiences and interactions in the commercial environment now drive citizen and employee expectations — due to companies such as Uber, Airbnb, Venmo and Amazon. As millennials become the dominant consumer of government services, influencing the sociopolitical landscape, economics and technology innovations, government needs to up its game to meet the expectations of a more sophisticated and informed user. A shift is happening.

On Dec. 12, 2017, President Donald Trump signed the Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act as part of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. The law creates working capital funds for IT projects for federal agencies and a central modernization fund housed by the General Services Administration. Key themes include upgrading legacy systems, moving to cloud email and using artificial intelligence to detect malicious activity.

Under the MGT Act, when an agency upgrades its technology infrastructure and saves money, those savings can be used to fund future projects. However, is the public sector ready to embrace and institutionalize emerging technologies into its existing enterprise blueprints — not only in silos but also through a well-thought-out strategy that brings together a confluence of key emerging trends in a creative and meaningful way?

According to Teo Chee Hean, deputy prime minister of Singapore, “The emergence of new Infocom technologies calls for fundamental rethinking and transformational shifts in the way we look at egovernment. Governments must take on the roles of a facilitator and enabler — to collaborate with the public, private and people sectors in creating new solutions, new businesses and new wealth.”

Regardless that we temporarily avoided another shutdown or the status of our southern border, government agencies need to capitalize on the moment to reignite modernization efforts. This is no longer a choice. It is a necessity if we are going to meet the needs of our citizenry and avoid a mandatory, tech-induced shutdown.

We can’t run our government in the era of a portable CD player.

About the Author

Shamlan Siddiqi is the chief technology officer for NTT Data Services public sector business.

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