The Obama administration might be coming to a close, but it's never too late to lay the groundwork for a sound IT policy that can have a positive impact for years to come.
Some may dismiss it as irrelevant. Some may say that it is too little too late. But in truth, while it would have been great to see it sooner, it is far from too late for the Office of Management and Budget’s new IT policy to have an impact.
If nothing else, it will lay the groundwork for what almost everyone knows to be an imperative: Finding a way out of the IT morass in which more than 75 percent of IT funding goes to maintaining and operating existing systems.
That, it is widely agreed, is an unacceptable state of affairs.
The argument that the new policy is too little too late is not entirely without merit. After all, the heavy bias in funding toward legacy systems has been known and discussed for years. But that’s far from a reason to summarily dismiss the new policy—assuming it gets out from its current interagency review sometime soon.
In other circumstances, launching a new initiative at this point in an administration would likely be an exercise in futility. But IT is different. From the passage of the Clinger-Cohen Act during the Clinton Administration, and that administration’s increased emphasis on IT, through the George W. Bush administration and now the Obama Administration and the passage of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act last year (FITARA), IT policy (what we used to call E-Government), has experienced a natural, if slow evolution.
It is one of the few areas of government operations that has been and remains mostly non-partisan. And it is an area that has benefitted from strong, visible leadership that enjoyed significant support from above. Thus, in this case, laying a substantive foundation for the next team makes sense and has real value.
Moreover, it is simply high time that agencies were required to do a serious and deep assessment of their existing IT infrastructure to determine not only what their modernization priorities ought to be, but to also identify gaps and potential vulnerabilities that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.
And in an era in which IT drives virtually everything we do, this kind of assessment is an absolute necessity; delaying it just because there is an election on the horizon would make no sense at all. Given all of the attention paid to information breaches and cybersecurity shortfalls, just the security-focused elements of the review make eminent sense.
There is one scenario under which this exercise could, however, end up being a waste of energy and resources. That is, if the next administration and the next congress lose sight of the critical importance of modernizing federal IT capacity.
Should they refuse to fund modernization, be it through the president’s proposed modernization fund or traditional appropriations, the consequences will be widely felt as the infrastructure continues to age and ever more rapidly fall behind the rest of the economy.
Further, the degree to which IT modernization remains a priority has real implications for the budget debate and its impacts.
We know that the ways in which the smart application of IT can reduce operational costs and improve performance are nearly endless—and actually growing every day. In other words, as budget planning progresses at each agency, the agency’s ability to do more with less will hinge in no small part on its ability to modernize its IT infrastructure.
And the reverse is also true—a failure to modernize will sharply limit the ways in which improved IT can reduce costs. That dynamic in turn exacerbates the fiscal pressures agencies already feel and which will continue mostly unabated regardless of who is elected.
To look at the IT budget as some kind of niche spend is a mistake, for its implications across the federal sphere are significant.
Likewise, missing an opportunity, any opportunity, to put a workable, substantive, and well researched plan in place to enable IT modernization has similarly broad implications.
The end of this administration may be nearing; but an end to the centrality of sound IT policy and practice in government is nowhere in sight.
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