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Nearly three decades ago, Vice President Al Gore started to reinvent the U.S. government. Back then, private sector productivity had been rising for over a decade, yet it was apparent that government efficiency, effectiveness, and responsiveness was not keeping pace. To make the government as efficient as the private sector, Vice President Gore launched the National Performance Review (NPR).
Mr. Gore’s efforts predated the Internet, but even at the time of the NPR it was evident that legacy mainframe technologies were giving way to the democratization of computing and the PC (client/server) revolution. The NPR was created to capture this shift in technology, modernize government, eliminate legacy processes, and import best practices from the commercial market.
In 2021—28 years after we first started reinventing government—we find ourselves in essentially the same conversation. Large, legacy government IT systems are inefficient, expensive, antiquated, and insecure. Across several administrations, the Federal government has rolled out the Y2K Act, the E-Government Act, the FISMA Reform Act, the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), and the Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act—along with the Cloud First Strategy and the Cloud Smart Strategy—to fix this fundamental problem. Yet all these actions have made only incremental progress and failed to eliminate legacy approaches to modernization.
The Federal government spends roughly $90 billion on information technology each year, largely on purpose-built, highly customized legacy systems that run core governmental functions. Well over two thirds of that budget—a portion that is growing over time—goes to maintaining these legacy systems—not replacing them with modern, higher performing analogs. The best way to quickly and economically bring the Federal government into the 21st century is to buy more commercial cloud applications and build fewer custom systems.
Many current beliefs about IT modernization are rooted in the failure of HealthCare.gov, an $8 billion custom-built system involving almost sixty vendors that triggered an effort to import modern software development methodologies into government. Yet the root of HealthCare.gov’s problems stemmed from an IT procurement playbook that sought to build instead of buy.
The barrier to building efficient, high performing government IT systems in general is over-reliance on custom-built technology and complex integrations. To maintain custom software, government must support, patch, secure, update, and eventually retire customized technology at its own expense. Each new customization creates a new potential point of failure, a new security risk, and additional complexity for installing future patches, updates, and upgrades. No amount of focus on modern development methodologies or emphasis on adoption of cloud technologies can change this fundamental truth or begin to address the perpetual, growing backlog of antiquated systems.
For every custom government IT system built, the Federal IT budget takes on the long tail of a software product lifecycle that locks future generations of government IT systems into a cycle of operations and maintenance that steals resources from new mission needs. And unlike software companies, the Federal government lacks the scale to effectively spread these maintenance costs over a large base of consumers.
Legacy technology encompasses software that is not modern, not easy to maintain, and not easy to use. It may or may not actually be “old” because legacy technology can also include the use of modern infrastructure to build custom, bespoke applications that will require costly support over the long term. And, legacy technology can also involve merely moving custom, bespoke applications to modern infrastructure. As a result, the Federal government can quickly find itself burdened with legacy technology, even when it believes it is adopting modern cloud.
That’s because commercial cloud offerings can be broken down into two fundamentally different categories—cloud applications and cloud infrastructure. You can think of cloud applications as buying a car and cloud infrastructure as buying car parts. Today’s cloud applications do not need to be updated, patched, or otherwise operated and maintained by the government, yet they offer embedded security, AI functionality, mobile, and social features out of the box. Unfortunately, modernization efforts to date have not emphasized commercial cloud applications solutions and have instead focused on cloud infrastructure.
Interacting with government—as a citizen or a Federal employee—should be as easy as ordering a custom coffee via the Starbucks app, as intuitive as mobile banking, and as efficient as sending a FedEx package across the country. But it is not.
The key to modernization is to ensure efforts are focused on providing taxpayers and government employees with the same kind of modern, mobile, secure experiences they have come to expect from commercial enterprises. Solutions must ensure that new capabilities such as artificial intelligence are not bolt-on afterthoughts, but built-in parts of a modern application’s architectural foundation. And of critical importance, new technology investments must address evolving challenges—from cybercrime, like the breaches at Capitol One and Target; to nation-state attacks, like Equifax, the hacking of the Office of Personnel and Management (OPM) and the compromise of SolarWinds.
So, it is critical to ensure new Federal IT modernization spending focuses 1) less on building custom applications, even those designed for modern cloud infrastructure; 2) less on moving legacy applications to modern cloud infrastructure; and 3) more on replacing legacy systems with modern cloud applications.
The key to government modernization is to buy modern, secure, commercial off the shelf cloud applications, just like the private sector. Focusing on applications also brings the additional benefit of modernizing government infrastructure. Investing in applications makes government data centers more efficient and secure as part of the package because modern cloud applications come with cloud infrastructure already included. The point is that focusing more on applications and less on infrastructure leads to progress in both categories, but the opposite (and the focus of modernization to this point) is not true.
Modern commercial off-the-shelf cloud applications for Federal government use are readily available now. They mirror modern consumer-grade apps available to the public and deliver revolutionary functionality that the federal workforce deserves. They enhance mission outcomes without capital investment or vendor lock in. They are available from multiple vendors offering differentiated services, hybrid deployment, and hardware located directly in the customer’s data center to address regulatory requirements and meet the highest national security standards.
In addition to reducing the costs and inflexibility associated with custom-built systems, adopting commercial applications permits the government to align its business processes with modern commercial best practices. These practices include approaches for managing and deploying complex IT systems as well as modern business workflows for common activities like supply chain management, HR, and financials.
The Federal government can ensure citizens have the same experience as the commercial sector, while cutting costs, reducing the burden of maintaining outdated legacy systems, and driving critical business process modernization. To achieve these goals, several steps are necessary:
After 28 years, it is time to make progress in bigger increments. And the key to that progress is to buy not build, leapfrogging the U.S. government into 2021.