Senior Vice President, C_TEC, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
March 25, 2021
It’s 2021, but some government agencies are still running on systems from the 1950s. Legacy systems like FORTRAN and COBOL not only cause costly delays, they also make government vulnerable to security risks and less able to serve the American public. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these outdated systems wrought havoc on relief efforts across federal, state, and local governments. For example, the IRS struggled to disperse millions of economic relief payments, and the Small Business Administration’s E-Tran website crashed as it tried to roll out the Paycheck Protection Program.
To highlight these important issues, the Chamber Technology Engagement Center (C_TEC) convened leading policymakers and industry leaders to discuss the challenges, opportunities, and solutions. Here are the top 4 reasons we need government IT modernization:
1. Serving Americans
“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen the federal response to COVID-19 hampered by aging IT systems all across the government,” said Senator Maggie Hassan. “It is unacceptable that, in many cases, our system struggled to meet expectations in a crisis.”
When agencies work closely with the private sector on digital solutions, government can more effectively address the needs of Americans. For example, when massive surges in demand at the Department of Veteran Affairs at the outset of the pandemic led to calls being dropped thousands of times a day, the Department partnered with Splunk to identify and remedy the issue. “This ended up reducing the number of failed virtual appointments from thousands per day to under 10,” Bill Wright, Director of Federal Government Affairs at Splunk. “Veterans were able to get the critical services they needed and deserve.”
Adopting modern digital solutions can also change the relationship between government and the public. Instead of staying in line at the DMV for hours or all day long, for example, Americans can use online systems to quickly address their needs. “States have shown that that doesn’t have to be the way we do it, but it requires them rethinking the way that they manage those processes,” said Gordon Bitko, SVP of Policy at the Information Technology Industry Council. “That’s where the real challenge lies.”
Outdated systems are also costly. At the federal level alone, every year government agencies combined spend nearly $40 billion on paperwork processes. Across all federal agencies there are 23,000 unique forms and 113 billion forms processed every year.
“I’m also concerned that the federal government spends more taxpayer dollars on maintaining old IT systems rather than investing in new agile and secure systems,” Senator Hassan emphasized. “Outdated systems that are no longer supported by the vendor, require highly specialized personnel to maintain, or often do not support current software or current agency needs.”
Moreover, according to a recent U.S. Chamber survey, 26% of CTOs and CIOs say that aging government IT infrastructure is harming their business. For a majority of companies affected, it’s costing them $500,000 or more per year due to inefficiency and lost productivity.
Modernizing these systems not only improve service, security, and efficiency, but it would also save money for government agencies and, by extension, taxpayers.
Many public health agencies are still using paper filing as opposed to digital, making tracking much slower. “Last year was certainly eye-opening in terms of learning more about how local state and federal agencies still have in place very involved bureaucratic paper processes,” said Cinnamon Rogers, Head of Global Government Affairs at DocuSign.
When the New York Department of Labor’s aged systems, which only allowed them to do an average of 10 emails an hour, failed to meet the 1,300% increase in unemployment claims, the Department partnered with DocuSign to build a digital process. This allowed them to send out 570,000 unemployment certifications in under 72 hours. According to Rogers, going digital saves about $36 per paper process, is 94% more efficient in terms of turnaround time, and makes 84% fewer errors.
4. Resilience and Cybersecurity
COVID-19 exacerbated an already-dire issue and provided the wake-up call for many government agencies to understand the importance of modernizing their IT systems. We must build on this momentum to truly prioritize and commit long-term funding toward modernization efforts. An improved ability for government to speed-up research on, gather data from, and quickly respond to disasters and pandemics could save millions of lives. And, as the cyber threat landscape evolves, modern IT systems can provide much-needed protection against attacks and disruptions. We simply can’t afford to be unprepared for the next crisis.
So how should governments tackle this issue? At the forefront is resources. Congress’s recent passing of $1 billion in funding for the American Modernization Fund is an important first step, but much more is needed. Any COVID-19 recovery package must include IT modernization funds. “Money wasted in government is not political,” said Representative Darrell Issa (CA-50). “It is in fact a challenge that both parties need to work on together.”
Based on our survey, business CTOs and CIOs agreed that, in addition to committing to long-term funding to build stability, government should use commercial technologies and partner closely with the private sector to secure and modernize government IT. As we’ve seen during the pandemic with Splunk and DocuSign, that has produced the best results.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced government agencies to “go digital or go dark.” While many were able to make impressive strides by embracing commercial digital solutions and partnering with the private sector, others fell short. And when the U.S. government can’t securely, efficiently, and effectively perform its basic functions, it fails its customers - the American people. It’s time to finally bring government to the 21st Century.