Why system modernization must be given higher priority

Instead of supporting continuous innovation and upgrades to existing systems, we have been seduced by the siren song of exotic new systems that come with equally exotic price tags.

The maiden flight of America’s B-52 bomber took place, fittingly enough, in 1952.  Today, nearly 70 years later, the plane remains a mainstay of the nation’s strategic strike force. 

I have nothing but respect for the B-52 and its storied history, but some casual observers may find it surprising that a plane of its vintage, largely unchanged, would still be on active duty.  Technologies, like people, can get old and lose their edge.

It’s easy to understand the issues around IT system modernization.  Although a system’s age by itself is not necessarily a problem; it can become one if it’s neglected.  That applies to more than just federal installations. When modernizing systems that are more than 50 years old, agencies can’t simply update them to be web-friendly and more secure. The basic architectural paradigm in which legacy systems were developed prevents modernization to web technologies and the latest new data and information technologies. Such shortcomings cascade throughout the infrastructure, impacting everything from tax systems to budget applications, social services management and more.

The onset of COVID-19 brought other public-sector IT obsolescence into sharp focus.  For example, the state unemployment system in Florida was unable to handle the surge in demand, frustrating thousands of applicants because they couldn’t apply for or receive their desperately needed unemployment benefits. And Florida was not alone; unemployment insurance system failures were happening everywhere. That was bad enough.

Yet, it was the work-from-home phenomenon, which was amplified by COVID-19, and the corresponding need to support a remote, distributed workforce, that put legacy government infrastructure to the test. Agencies learned that meetings via Zoom or any other videoconference tool can be genuinely helpful. However, issues including poor resolution, bad audio, limited bandwidth, institutional firewalls and lax security all had to be resolved.

It’s not just a technical issue; it’s also a cultural one. Until the pandemic struck, many government agencies considered it unacceptable for employees to work offsite. That’s starting to change, and there’s even some money being used to web-enable certain systems. However, there are plenty of DOD systems that require users to be on base before they can get their hands on a keyboard. Some of them are classified, which means there’s no web-enablement permitted; users can only work on them in a classified room with physical security.

A more significant cultural issue -- and one that’s baked into the military funding and acquisition process -- is the inclination toward replacing entire systems rather than incrementally modernizing existing ones. DOD faces a dilemma: On the one hand, leaders really want to move ahead, but on the other, they are anchored to long-planned and budgeted system modernization projects, unable to incrementally improve existing systems. Each government system is assigned a lifecycle, and agencies tend to stick with that cycle to secure their projected return on investment.

Because agencies are reluctant to integrate advances that deliver no functional gain, IT systems incur technical debt as they age.

The nation’s focus on acquiring big new defense systems makes sustained innovation much more difficult than it ought to be.  Agencies must bake active and deliberate innovation into all their programs. Every one should have an innovation plan and technology roadmap that drives it to prevent technical debt from accruing and ensures that IT systems evolve. The belief that unless there are billions of dollars to work with, nothing important can be accomplished is a dangerous habit of mind.  Much smaller sums of money, when properly focused, can update technologies already in hand, leading to smarter, more effective uses.  Embracing this mindset requires a process less like traditional defense planning and acquisition and more like the way an innovative agile warfighter adapts to changing conditions in the field.

Sometimes I ask military clients what they would do to improve an application if they had an unlimited budget, because budget constraints clearly limit their thinking.  However, an equally revealing question might be: What would they do if you had just a thousand dollars to work with? 

That was essentially the choice faced by a DOD when it wanted a system that could automatically translate text from Chinese to English. As the apocryphal story goes, a small group of university professors and grad students set to work on the challenge, as did a private research firm backed by a multi-million dollar DOD contract. In the end, the university team came up with an elegant solution and delivered it more quickly than the research institution for a small fraction of the cost. 

I’m convinced that the root problem of obsolete government systems is not a failure of technology; it’s a failure of imagination. Instead of supporting continuous innovation and upgrades to existing systems, we have been seduced by the siren song of exotic new systems that come with equally exotic price tags. Of course, new systems can be a good thing.  However, neglecting the systems we’ve already invested in is a false economy and a danger to national security. 

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