IT modernization in the time of COVID-19: How government investment in critical IT systems can enhance citizen services

Outdated government IT systems and processes hinder many federal and state agencies’ ability to deliver services. This fact has been well known and disturbingly unresolved, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

So, when tens of millions of Americans suddenly began applying for small business loans and unemployment insurance, it is no wonder that so many encountered website failures or struggled to reach a call center operator. Nor is it surprising to government IT professionals that the “fix” to some of these problems involved a scramble for coders familiar with COBOL, an archaic programming language on which too many key government systems still rely. However, the right answer isn’t “please send more COBOL programmers,” it’s “no more COBOL.”

The rapid transition to remote telework during the pandemic also created new challenges for government agencies, including increased cybersecurity threats. The CARES Act provided a massive $2.2 trillion stimulus response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the stimulus package’s funding for IT modernization was relatively modest, such as $500 million for public health data modernization, $12 million to digitize federal employee retirement processing currently done by hand, and some other relatively minor investments in federal agencies to deal with continuity of operations during the coronavirus response. This was a missed opportunity to assist in the fight against the COVID-19 emergency with the modern, effective, digital government that citizens deserve.

Congress can still make a transformative investment in IT modernization – and must do so now, before we fall even further behind. This opportunity coincides with a shift to cloud computing, which allows agencies at all levels of government to leverage private sector investment in IT infrastructure to improve cybersecurity and adaptability. Modern digital architectures also allow government organizations to more quickly scale to meet spikes in demand for services. New commercial capabilities enable public sector organizations to leverage data as a strategic asset to more effectively and efficiently meet their mission. Importantly, the gains from investing in technology now will continue to accrue far after the current emergency ends.

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Here are four recommendations from ITI, CompTIA and the Alliance for Digital Innovation:

  1. Provide adequate funds to modernize IT systems used by agencies working on the front lines of this pandemic and future emergency responses. Such funding should be made available for expenditure over multiple years.
  2. Establish and fund a mechanism that provides federal financial support to state and local government agencies in need of IT and cybersecurity modernization and upgrades that, in turn, will enhance the speed and effect of relief efforts for citizens, business, hospitals, and organizations in direct need during the COVID-19 and subsequent emergencies.
  3. Support the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) at an appropriations level that would allow for meaningful investment in cross-agency IT modernization initiatives.
  4. Ensure that IT modernization efforts include focused attention and investment on strengthening cybersecurity, workforce training and process transformation.

Citizens are relying on the government more now than most could have ever imagined. In order to provide them the services they need, the government can’t rely on the same outdated technology that has limited agency transformation for years. Let’s not miss the opportunity to address the obvious need to upgrade government IT in any subsequent coronavirus relief package and empower agencies to best serve our fellow citizens.

Gordon Bitko is Senior Vice President of Policy, Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), and David Logsdon is Senior Director, Federal Procurement Committee, Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA)