Federal Agencies Rapidly Falling Behind Commercial Sector
Sure, they’re mentioning that too many users overwhelmed a website full of faulty links, but no one is talking about the real issue. Healthcare.gov is just the most high-profile example of seriously outdated federal government information technology. Most government IT is at least five years behind that of the mainstream commercial world of companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon.
In the past few years, there have been dozens of instances where the federal government has disrupted progress, slowed procedures, increased costs and even entirely stopped projects. It’s not just the defense sector. The entire federal government is lagging.
As a military veteran, I have personally faced challenges in the Veterans Affairs system, which stands in stark comparison to the relative ease with which I use my civilian United Healthcare insurance.
The government’s effort to modernize the Army with technology such as smart combat vehicles and an advanced wireless command-and-control network is another high-profile case in which technology gaps contributed to a program failure. Future Combat Systems was cancelled in 2009, and although budget shortfalls were a factor, another reason it didn’t work is that the new technology was meant to overhaul many old systems and bring them together.
Coupled with that daunting challenge were long-time government engineers who were, somewhat rightfully, skeptical of new technology. Skepticism can be a good thing in that it can cause deeper investigation and study that provides a better outcome, but too much can cause gridlock.
In the meantime, the commercial industry has evolved into high-efficiency operations. It has moved from single providers figuring out entire end-to-end solutions to an industry where companies searching for a solution will adapt existing and proven technologies. Just substituting one component, for instance, using Amazon cloud or Google apps programs, can ring up cost savings of 25 to 30 percent.
One of the key fallouts from the government technology time warp is that young tech specialists are declining to join the federal work force. A recent report from Freedman Consulting, commissioned by the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, found that “deep questions remain about the ability for many areas of government and civil society to identify, cultivate and retain individuals with the necessary skills for success in a world increasingly driven by information technology.”
And it’s not about the money. Young professionals seek meaningful work that will make them money and advance their careers, but that will also contribute to the world at large. They are not able to find that in largely moribund government IT departments. The average age of federal workers today is 47, and a full 30 percent of them are within three years of retirement. What will we do about government technology when the keepers of the outdated systems retire and there are few young engineers stepping up to replace them?
Of course, there are some bright spots that foreshadow hope. Amazon Web Services’ recent win of the contract for the Central Intelligence Agency’s “secret cloud” is the latest in several of that mainstream tech giant’s government wins. This is a company that knows how to build large scalable systems and has proven that it can be done securely.
Google apps for government is a program that cuts costs of managing emails, auditing them and creating archived logs that can be accessed for many years.
Security is one of those buzzwords that is often tossed out as an excuse when discussing the government adoption of commercial technology. Certainly it is a real issue. No one wants defense networks that can be easily hacked. But it is also an addressable issue. Amazon and Google can’t have their millions of customer accounts and information hacked, either. Unfortunately, when traveling the path of least resistance, it is sometimes easier just to say, “No.”
Cost is a valid concern. New technology is definitely cost effective and will result in savings down the road, but it does usually require an upfront investment for accreditation and other requirements. The government budget crunch and sequestration are not helping.
Change will not be effective if it happens only on the micro level. Government IT enterprise has to change culturally and institutionally across the whole federal government. This does not mean throwing out old systems or firing employees. There is a balanced approach that can be taken that values the knowledge and experience already in the system, while incorporating new technologies.
Without change, the public failures of programs like Healthcare.gov are going to become more frequent. The government has to move toward cutting-edge technologies before the commercial sector gets so far ahead that the changes can’t be done organically and instead require a complete overhaul that will take even more time and cost far more money.
As noted in the Ford Foundation study, many of those professionals who work in technology internally and as consultants to the government are also worried. One interviewee in the study said: “I think 10 years from now it will be utterly unacceptable to be doing policy work in this area without technology expertise in your organization.”
One place to start is to incorporate commercial industry best practices into the federal government system.
A.J. Clark is president of Thermopylae Sciences and Technology.