The American Technology Council, which President Donald Trump established this spring by executive order, has four years to rebuild the federal government’s information technology structure.
A massive reboot of both hardware and software will be necessary to bring government computers up to modern standards. The effort will force many government agencies to shift years of floppy disk and other outdated storage technologies to current cloud storage systems, and to adopt big data and machine learning solutions.
The ATC is comprised of cabinet members and top officials of related agencies. Both the executive order and the ATC it created terminate on Jan. 20, 2021.
The ATC, which is headed by Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner, met last month to set an agenda for collaborating with industry leaders to forge a new technology plan.
The ATC’s goal is to promote the secure, efficient and economical use of information technology to achieve its mission. Toward that end, the federal government must transform and modernize its information technology operations and the systems it uses to deliver digital services, according to the executive order.
Council members will coordinate advice to the president on technology policies and processes. The council is tasked with coordinating the vision, strategy and direction for the federal government’s IT reboot.
Two major impediments could hinder full achievement of the president’s IT goals, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.
“First is the sheer complexity of the federal government’s IT assets, systems and management,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “The second is the compartmentalized culture of many or most federal departments and agencies.”
Is an IT Reboot Needed?
An IT reboot is not necessary, suggested King, who favors expanding what the Obama administration started instead. The previous administration’s accomplishments include appointing the first U.S. chief technology officer, and bringing greater order and innovation to federal agencies’ IT efforts.
Consideration of those ongoing efforts was “curiously absent during the ATC meeting,” said King.
“Rebooting, or starting all over again, rather than building on that solid, existing foundation, is likely to waste time and money,” he warned.
There is a clear need for the ATC initiatives, according to Brian Chappell, senior director at BeyondTrust, who cited a recent survey of federal IT managers.
An overwhelming majority of federal IT managers (81 percent) said that the federal government’s aging IT infrastructure had a significant impact on their agencies’ cybersecurity risk, Chappell told the E-Commerce Times.
“It is statistics like this that make initiatives like the American Technology Council essential in starting the drive toward not only modernizing the federal government and the services it provides, but also — and more importantly — improving the safety of U.S. citizens and government staff using those services.”
Deja Vu All Over Again
Budget concerns are a major barrier to system modernization, said Tami Gallegos, federal manager at BeyondTrust.
Eighty-one percent of survey participants mentioned budget as a major roadblock, she pointed out.
Sixty-nine percent of the respondents expressed concern about losing information during the conversion, which would have a negative impact on their ability to achieve their missions.
“This is a very complex proposition that will require talent and expertise across several technology cycles to get the job done,” Gallegos told the E-Commerce Times.
Enterprise-focused IT vendors, including those involved with the ATC, should be able to offer valuable solutions to many of the federal government’s IT infrastructure problems, said Pund-IT’s King. However, it will take more than a few months to develop, design and deploy replacements for such massively complex systems.
“A notable shift in the political landscape due to the 2018 mid-terms and the 2020 election could result in a new Congress and/or a new president starting the process all over again,” he said.
Repeal and Replace Gov IT?
Information technology dynamics have changed dramatically in the last few years, according to David King, director of solutions marketing at Commvault. The need to introduce new applications more quickly and in dramatically larger volumes has altered the interaction between IT operations and the organizations that they support. [*Editor’s Note – July 25, 2017]
Hybrid cloud, virtualization, big data analytics and machine learning have provided new options to deliver those applications and derive new value from the information they produce.
“If you are willing to consider doing things in a different manner, the results can be remarkable,” King told the E-Commerce Times, “so a reboot in how the federal government does infrastructure technology is a necessity.”
Modernizing the current IT infrastructure and shedding legacy architectures will require a much more data-centric philosophy, he noted. It will be necessary to eliminate cumbersome data silos and make it easier to access big data and machine learning systems.
What Is Needed
The American Technology Council’s agenda is to lay important groundwork, according to Dux Raymond Sy, CTO of AvePoint public sector.
However, the ATC may not go far enough to upgrade the government’s IT infrastructure, which is a worrisome prospect, he said.
Government IT should embrace artificial intelligence, use commercial technology, and prioritize coding in schools, he suggested.
Moving from legacy technologies to the cloud is critical, and action will be required in three key areas to achieve a successful reboot of the U.S. IT infrastructure, Sy told the E-Commerce Times.
Influencing decision makers to muster the political will to change how government works is the first step for the ATC, he said.
“What is slowing down government IT is the overlapping numbers of government agencies that are counterintuitive in modern technology,” noted Sy. “The irony is that new technology is designed for agility and more responsiveness. This is counter to how the government works. How the government works has to change.”
Reach for the Sky
The second step for the ATC is to promote more government and private industry collaboration, noted Sy. The formation of the ATC is a good beginning toward creating a stronger IT partnership with other government agencies, but the government must be committed to executing the recommended changes.
Artificial Intelligence could be a vital part of any IT innovation efforts, but for AI to work, it needs to reside in the cloud.
“The federal government is moving towards harvesting cloud technology,” said Sy, which is a necessary step toward “maximizing commercial technology.”
No single government agency is tasked with overseeing innovative thinking about technology, so having an agency such as the ATC is great, according to Sy. Unless there is authority attached to that agency, though, nothing will move beyond merely discussing ideas.
“Having government agencies move to the cloud is a good first step — but then what? The government can not behave like a homeowner who moves into a big new modern house but then continues to use worn out furniture and house maintenance policies from their old, rundown structure,” Sy cautioned.
How long will it take? It’s doubtful that it will take much time for the government to move into the cloud, he said. The bigger question is this: How does the government maximize the new IT infrastructure?
The third essential action the ATC must take is investing in technical education for the next generation, according to Sy. That includes improving computer education teaching goals in schools.
“We need to make coding skills a much larger priority than it is now,” he urged. “The council needs to consider how to maximize commercial technologies that already exist.”
Voices for Innovation is a strong advocate for more government spending on technological education. This is an area our government has to consider and address soon, said Sy.
Sy cited two examples of governments with forward-looking IT policies: Singapore and Estonia. Singapore has two agencies responsible for government IT and technology innovations.
“These two agencies are in lockstep with all other Singapore government agencies,” Sy said.
“Estonia is one of the most modern and forward-looking governments out there leveraging IT,” he added.
Initially, the intent was to modernize the Estonian government’s IT. Then the plan was to follow through with better services and innovations. They have done that today, Sy pointed out.
Out With the Old
The days of upgrading technology hardware every five years are long gone. The government must focus on upgrading technology daily — and that way of thinking about technology innovation should be introduced at a formative age, Sy suggested.
How many government agencies are still using outdated hardware and software? The answer is mind-boggling. There are still government agencies using floppy disks to store data, he said.
Too many government agencies and IT workers are stuck in the old IT mindset. We spend a boatload of money, and once we spend money on upgrades we must wait another five-to-10 years to consider something new, Sy lamented.
“That is what government IT is suffering from,” he maintained.”Two reasons explain why government IT has fallen into such a bad disarray: One is the bureaucracy, or its lack of political will. It is that mindset of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.'”
The second reason is the government attitude toward cost and spending taxpayers’ money.
“How many times do we see government waiting to step up and make change only when bad things happen? Well, really bad things are happening today with malware, ransomware and really serious network breaches. The government has to step up,” Sy said.
Wheels are turning in some quarters to overcome government’s big legacy obstacles in adopting AI/big data/machine learning systems, said Chris Nicholson, CEO of Skymind.
The government is grappling with outdated technology and a cumbersome procurement process.
“They are reaching out through groups like DHS’ Silicon Valley office to … do deals with startups that have never worked with government before and have unique technology to offer,” Nicholson told the E-Commerce Times.
Getting technology right will occur only if the government understands how new technologies can help agencies fulfill their missions, he said.
“The government is planning on using powerful open source technology on top of their legacy systems. A lot of government has invested in Java and the [Java Virtual Machine], and there are many, powerful tools for big data and AI for the JVM stack,” he said.
Small Steps to Success
An IT reboot as a necessary and inevitable change, in Nicholson’s view, even if it is difficult to accomplish. It will involve educating people, connecting people, and empowering them to make hard decisions about how to build new systems.
“In government, no one wants to fail or be seen to fail, but when you are building new systems, you are actually experimenting with the world, seeing what works and trying again,” he said.
To avoid overall failure, the reboot needs to involve projects that are small enough to prove themselves at a scale where failure matters less, suggested Nicholson. That involves taking small risks and betting on new tech in order to understand its potential.
“That is how you shape the future,” he said. “If failure is going to happen, it should happen small and early, so that you can get the big projects right. A lot of people on the ATC know this because they have built companies, made bets, failed, and corrected course until they succeeded.”
*ECT News Network editor’s note – July 25, 2017: Our original published version of this story attributed David King’s comments to Craig McCullough, vice president of U.S. federal sales at Commvault. Per Commvault’s Daniella Kohan, the quotes the company shared with us actually came from King.