How President Trump can transform the federal government's IT system

See the originally published article in The Hill

There are very, very few non-partisan issues in the Beltway: the traffic is terrible, the weather makes no sense lately, and the federal government needs to improve its information technology (IT) infrastructure.

It is unfathomable that the federal government is expected to spend $89 billion on IT in fiscal year 2017, with the overwhelming majority — 77 percent — going toward outdated, vulnerable, and expensive-to-maintain systems. Yet, that is the truth. Many people refer to this as legacy IT, but I have a different phrase: dying IT.

The federal IT community, especially with a new administration taking the reigns, has a significant opportunity to reduce the cost of government IT while vastly improving our cyber posture. Unfortunately, many agencies are not actively modernizing systems, which is only further compounding the problem.

To successfully transform federal IT, there needs to be a concerted effort to develop and drive an agenda that aims to hit three key points: reducing cost, improving cyber security, and accelerating the pace of change.

Target 25 percent reduction in IT spending

While there are many aspects of the federal government that cannot be changed quickly, replacing outdated IT systems is not one of them. The technologies and methodologies needed to accomplish It modernization already exist in the private sector and have been proven extremely successful.

Outdated systems can be rebuilt through cloud-based Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) in short order, if the leadership driving the agenda places an emphasis on making true IT transformation a reality. The Trump administration has a once in a generation opportunity to transform federal IT and the benefits will be quickly revealed in cost savings as those outdated, “dying” systems are a huge budgetary strain.

One way this can be accomplished is through a federal-wide IT transformation initiative that should be launched under the direction of the federal chief information officer (CIO). Through this initiative, the Trump administration can quantify a bold vision of slashing IT operating and maintenance costs by 25 percent in the next four years. If cloud-based technologies become the rule rather than the exception, the cost reduction could be as much as 50 percent by 2024.

Leave legacy IT behind to improve cyber

As the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian hacking on March 20 proved, cybersecurity has become a national security issue. These threats are very real and even more dangerous due to the security shortcomings of legacy IT systems, which are outdated and unable to cope with today’s sophisticated hackers.

Without question, cybersecurity must be a top priority for the Trump administration. The long-rumored and much-discussed cyber executive order is one way that the Trump administration can begin to develop a new foundation of cybersecurity in the federal government. The proposed budget, with increased spending for defense and homeland security, is another avenue.

However, lost in the discussion surrounding cyber is the fact that older IT systems are simply more vulnerable. Any cyber policy or legislation that does not include IT modernization is doomed to fail. Instead, cyber policy should include a mandate for the timely rebuilding of certain categories of legacy systems.

Furthermore, there should be a push to mandate the use of modern cloud-based platform technologies for anything deemed moderate or below under the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA). Cloud providers simply have much better cyber defenses than most federal agencies.

Instead of trying to develop cyber defenses to rival companies, the federal government needs to leverage these cloud platforms and receive the full benefit of their security capabilities. By no means will this solve all cybersecurity issues, but modernization using the cloud must be a significant part of reducing the federal government’s unacceptable cyber exposure.

Establish policy and empower CIOs to break through

For the past eight years, the Obama administration focused its efforts on initiatives, such as the U.S. Digital Service, that began to cultivate a new environment of tech innovation within the federal government. However, that foundation is not enough. It will take drive and vision to push IT transformation forward.

There are several members of Congress, namely Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) who have been very vocal on the IT front and there is already discussion about submitting a new version of the Modernizing Government Technology Act.

It is my hope that the Trump administration, by working with congressmen like Rep. Hurd and Rep. Connolly, can establish policy that breaks the patterns of excuses. Instead, the administration needs to drive and direct agencies to rebuild dying IT systems with cloud platforms to finally provide an actual and meaningful IT transformation.

Moving forward, CIOs should be given cover to serve missions by decentralizing IT application development by using standard cloud-based PaaS technologies. For far too long, the CIO has been charged with telling people what they cannot do, which constrains innovation. Instead, let’s empower CIOs to be the “enabler of change” within agencies.

Think about the potential for success if we empower a new breed of CIOs with modern cloud-based tools and technologies. We can truly revolutionize how the federal government uses IT. The time for change is now. The opportunity is too great to hold off for any longer.