A damaged database file in a legacy system caused a 90-minute ground halt resulting in 10,000 delayed and 1,300 cancelled flights. The ground stop was called by the Federal Aviation Administration when the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system — which alerts pilots and airports of real-time hazards — went offline, creating potential safety hazards. This was the second major airline IT issue in recent weeks, causing problems for travelers across the country.
NOTAM is reportedly older technology and the FAA’s fiscal 2023 Budget requested $21 million for migration and modernization of the system, stating “this migration activity will address issues with failing ‘vintage’ hardware and software modules.”
While early on some posited that the system may have suffered a cyberattack, that was not the case, but the reality is worse as it points to a larger problem throughout the public sector that doesn’t get the necessary attention: Technology debt. That is the cost of maintaining aging software and systems, especially those which have existed well beyond their expected or planned lifecycles. The problem also is not limited to federal agencies. In recent years, critical state IT systems have experienced failures, impacting services at a voter registration system, unemployment benefit websites and a motor vehicle agency.
Modernizing legacy technology doesn’t grab headlines. Taxpayers will wonder why the federal government is spending millions of dollars to update a system that seems to be working fine. Before Jan. 11, many would say that $21 million is a lot of money and question whether it’s necessary. That is, until it suddenly stops working and causes disruptions to millions of travelers across the country.
And that’s the problem with technology debt in government. Most people don’t think about a system until it’s not working. Recent estimates on technology debt and the federal government are difficult to come by, but it was estimated at $7 billion in 2018. While the pandemic may have ushered in some modernization, as all of government has had to take a digital first approach, it’s the backend systems that are suffering and where attention needs to be paid. Legacy code bases and mainframe technology have served a purpose, but modernization and migration to cloud computing offer advantages that need to be taken, including the ability to build in resiliency and redundancy, something that could have potentially helped FAA in this situation.
It will be difficult to put a price tag on the NOTAM disruption, but how long until the next legacy system experiences a problem? The next one could be even more serious, leading to soldiers or federal employees not getting paid, or potentially seniors not receiving entitlement benefits. It’s time to take technology debt seriously and invest in modern, cloud-based services across government.
To address these challenges today, Congress must equip the administration with the right tools, including:
Fully funding requests for modernization, like those outlined in the Department of Transportation budget request;
Driving accountability through regular oversight against realistic, actionable expectations.
Additionally, the administration must focus on the following:
Understanding the legacy technological debt across agencies and prioritizing investments based on risk to mission;
Centrally governing and overseeing the implementation of technology modernization efforts, given their criticality to agency missions;
Aggressively sharing information with Congress to better partner on the efforts to modernize critically important information technology.
If Congress and the administration can effectively partner on their efforts to drive modernization, the American people will start to see meaningful, long-lasting results to the services and support that the government provides.
Ross Nodurft is the executive director of the Alliance for Digital Innovation, an industry association that works to bring state-of-the-art information technology to the U.S. government for enhanced efficiency and security.