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Can we afford not to innovate?

During a recent House Oversight Committee hearing, the state of federal IT was described as “a ticking time bomb.” As someone who has seen the evolution of government IT over the last 20 years, I can agree. But as an IT professional, I also know that the solutions will be manifold -- no silver bullet or a single act of Congress can solve this problem. Legislation like the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act has empowered agency CIOs to exercise control while fostering collaboration and accountability across agencies, but lasting solutions will require innovation from within the government that simultaneously engages open source communities and the IT industry.

“The federal government spends the majority of its $80 billion technology budget on maintaining and operating legacy systems,” the Government Accountability Office reported, resulting in “higher costs and security vulnerabilities.” Specific examples of this outdated technology would be comical, if they weren’t true. In some cases, our national IT infrastructure relies on Windows 3.1, 8-inch floppy disks and source code that is more than 50 years old.

To be clear, this is not a bureaucratic failing or a miss on the part of the folks doing the work to maintain the systems. Arguably it’s not even a failing of the systems themselves -- they were often built on standard design patterns, using best-of-breed technologies of their day. These systems, however, were not designed to be modular and updated as most common commercial services are today.

These legacy systems are expensive for government to maintain. The House Oversight Committee findings go on to report that (excluding the Department of Defense and Department of Labor) the federal government currently has “3,427 IT staff employed just to maintain legacy-programming languages, such as COBOL and Fortran.” Within DOD, the Strategic Automated Command and Control Systems are running on IBM Series/1 systems, the code bases for which can be costly to repair and maintain. Finally, GAO found that data center consolidation could save millions of dollars; $2.8 billion has already been saved after 3,000 existing data centers were closed.

These legacy systems are also hindering the government’s efforts to develop modern technologies and methodologies that, per the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Service, are designed to “better serve the public.” The TTS calls for smarter technology procurement to enhance information sharing with the public and across agencies, as well as the creation of more secure public cloud platforms via the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program. 

Government has made great strides over the last few years. Bright and capable minds from the Presidential Innovation Fellows, the U.S. Digital Services, the TTS and pockets of innovative digital services groups within agencies are collaborating with each other as well as with citizens  and open source communities. Policy activities such as buy not build, cloud first, shared services and the federal source code policy are laying the foundation for the next generation of government IT. By focusing the sharpest minds in government IT on building core business technology and logic, while collaborating with industry for off-the-shelf products to help accelerate time to market, government can reap the best value per taxpayer dollar.

To further these goals, government agencies should look to the innovation that is taking place in the private sector, particularly regarding open source software development. There’s a reason why the government has taken a “default to open” approach over the past few years. Open source is the basis for many of the technologies that are powering the systems that enable better collaboration and information sharing, including cloud infrastructures. It is cost-effective and interoperable with the other systems that agencies may be using, including legacy systems.

Plus, there’s an astounding amount of innovation taking place within the open source community. Thousands of developers around the world are continually working on new projects to help organizations become more agile, secure and innovative. Private-sector vendors have taken their work, hardened it and made it suitable for government consumption. Open source projects like the SCAP Security Guide, 18F’s Compliance Masonry and others are paving the way for continued collaboration between government and industry. 

I’m encouraged by the ongoing opportunity for industry to engage with our innovation partners within the federal government -- whatever form they take. While the federal digital services teams continue to evolve, their basic charter – to apply “modern methodologies and technologies to improve the public’s experience with government” -- will continue. Collaboration between industry and these pockets of innovation within the federal government will help resolve the problems associated with  outdated infrastructure and accrue the cost savings that can drive efficiencies on behalf of taxpayers.

About the Author

Adam Clater is the chief architect, North America Public Sector, Red Hat.

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