COVID-19 Presents an Opportunity to Invest in Federal IT Modernization

Summary

COVID-19 has reshaped every facet of our social and professional experiences. What began for almost all of us as a short-term work-from-home event has turned into a prolonged crisis that will have lasting effects on how we interact with each other and do business. Even as vaccine rollouts continue and offices slowly start to reopen, much work will continue to be remote. Employees are likely to work staggered schedules or in predefined groups in order to maintain social distancing for an unknown period of time. Many meetings and tasks that went virtual during the pandemic will likely stay that way. And employers of all types, including governments, will continue to rely heavily on technology to keep employees and customers connected and engaged.

The pandemic accelerated an already rapid ongoing shift to a tech-driven world. As a nation, we must similarly accelerate investments in information technology (IT) to support this new normal. COVID-19 has already exposed critical weakness in existing U.S. IT systems at the federal, state and local levels. Technical problems delayed millions of Americans from receiving unemployment benefits, and are now delaying millions more from receiving timely vaccines. Remote work is raising equity issues and cybersecurity concerns, and periodic internet outages have caused major disruptions to school and work.

The upshot is clear: our investments in IT modernization and cloud computing over the last 10 years have not been sufficient. It’s time to start talking about the next steps the United States can and must take to lead at the federal level, ensuring that our nation’s IT infrastructure and tools can securely and adequately support all remote workers while providing secure, reliable, and state-of-the-art online services.

Scaling Proven IT Modernization Strategies Across the Federal Government

Summary

Seven years after the creation of the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) and 18F, the Federal Government still struggles to buy, build, and operate technology in a modern, scalable way. While there have been small success stories, most government technology and delivery practices remain antiquated and ineffective. Critical systems underperforming during the COVID-19 crisis is the latest example of technology and delivery failing to meet the needs of Americans. The federal government will spend $90.9 billion on information technology (IT) projects in fiscal year (FY) 21, an increase of $15.3 billion since it began to embrace the digital-services movement in earnest in FY14 in response the high failure rate of federal IT projects. Yet the public is not receiving the value expected from this substantial investment in technology. Between 2003 and 2012, only 6.4% of IT projects with a budget of over $10 million were considered successful. 41% were complete failures that had to be scrapped and started again. There is no evidence that performance has improved on a large scale since FY12.

In spite of efforts to implement transformative technological practices, most government systems still fail to meet modern standards or expectations. The next administration should undertake a series of actions outlined in this memo to scale proven IT modernization strategies across the Federal Government to improve its structure and culture, and buy, build, and deliver technology that meets the needs of Americans today and into the future.