IT modernization rolls on amid the coronavirus

Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

The pandemic and resulting strain on the federal information technology infrastructure has brightened the spotlight on the need for IT modernization. What form that should take and how to pay for it, that’s all under debate at the moment. One person who has a good grounding in both the government and industry views is Gordon Bitko, senior vice president of policy for the public sector at the Information Technology Industry Council, and former chief information officer at the FBI. He joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to discuss.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Bitko. Good to have you on

Gordon Bitko: Tom, thanks very much for having me on today. And let me start first by expressing the hope that you and everybody else down there at the station are handling the current situation okay, and that everybody’s healthy and well.

Tom Temin: Thank you very much. So far, we haven’t missed a beat. We have a lot of good support, things are working pretty well. And of course the government now, I don’t know what is putting the bigger strain on the infrastructure for all of the teleworkers and then we’ve seen the strain on delivering services such as getting the checks out through the Treasury and IRS and administering all those loans through SBA Everywhere you look, things are kind of under strain.

Gordon Bitko: Yeah, I think that’s right, Tom. It’s an unprecedented event, obviously, and something that although the government thinks about and exercises and practices for continuity of operations, I don’t know that the effort and the thought ever really went into it in terms of being a pandemic like this and expecting large percentages of the Federal workforce and state and local government workforces, as well to have to have to work remotely and to deliver services remotely. That’s not really something that was at the forefront of everybody’s mind in terms of planning for all this. So it absolutely has put strain and that touches across a whole spectrum of things. You’ve seen stories I’m sure we all have about old legacy systems that need to be updated because they just can’t handle the workload. The unemployment insurance systems in various states is a really good example of that. My former home state of New Jersey Governor Murphy was on the air asking for COBOL programmers right to help him fix that system. to modernize that system and to expand its capacity. So that’s a really good example. But at the same time, lots of federal agencies are just used to working in close proximity and figuring out how to telework is something that they’re having to think through and rethink business processes and the traditional ways of doing work in ways and I think, by and large, they’re doing a good job, but it’s certainly highlighted a lot of stress on the system.

Tom Temin: The ITI has joined several other industry associations and trade groups in calling for, tell us exactly what it is you would like to see.

Gordon Bitko: Yeah thanks, Tom. There’s a range of things that we’d like to see. But it starts out there’s just underlying infrastructure investments that need to happen at all levels of government to enable telework at the scale and to enable services to be provided better, sort of the basic things people expect out of government like health care. So telemedicine is a good example of that. Remote education services are another really good example for that lots of local school districts are really having to figure out how to To make all that happen and work for themselves, and that’s the sort of thing that what we’re saying is, unfortunately, we need to plan for things like this in the future and have the infrastructure to enable that type of capacity for government and citizens at all levels of service. So I think that that means a number of things, Tom, it means investments in the infrastructure, it means rethinking a lot of these processes. I think another really important piece of it, though, that we can’t lose sight of is is investing in cybersecurity in a very different world where instead of all the federal or state employees coming from trusted systems sitting in controlled government space, now you’re doing it from home, and what does that cybersecurity model look like? And how do we enable those employees to work but to do it in a way that’s secure, unfortunately, cyber adversaries see this as an opportunity, and they’ve made great efforts already to try to take advantage of it so so so we are also calling for more investments in cybersecurity in this remote working model.

Tom Temin: And from your standpoint, and you have At this, you’ve been an industry, you’ve also been at the RAND Corporation. So you really have a four sided view of this whole thing. It seems like there should be some investments in infrastructure capacity, such as like SBA trying to administer these programs quickly or the education department. But on the other hand, it’s not ever wise in the investment standpoint to spend what you need for the biggest imaginable peak. And that’s why we have elastic clouds, for example, that’s the whole point of having those those types of services available. So it seems like there needs to be a thinking about one the processes themselves need to be modernized. And then how much capacity does the government itself actually need? As long as it has a way of ramping up if it has to, and I’m not sure I’m hearing all that much distinction going on on that front?

Gordon Bitko: That’s a really good point, Tom. One of the core principles of what we’re asking for in the modernization investment here is to leverage commercial best practices where we can and that really does mean men being able to take advantage of the inherent elasticity like you said, cloud solutions of software defined solutions and ways that traditional legacy infrastructure really struggles to do right. One of the reasons why some of these old legacy unemployment insurance systems and other similar systems, SBA is a good example as well are struggling is because they’re legacy, architecture and legacy designs. And they’re just they’re not designed for that sort of elasticity exactly like you said.

Tom Temin: And in this letter from the associations, there’s, of course, the talk of money and administration’s and Congress’s have been arguing for a couple of decades over how much should be the right amount in a given year for monetization. Does anybody really know and what is the ITI see is what might be in terms of, you know, orders of magnitude, what kind of investment the government needs now?

Gordon Bitko: Orders of magnitude, you know, not to pull punches. We’re certainly talking billions of here to do this at a at a national scale across federal, state and local. One of the things that we’re really asking for is for OMB and the agencies and Congress to step back for a minute and to say, what do we actually need to do these things that are necessary for services in order to be delivered successfully in an environment like this? I don’t know that anybody could put a specific dollar on it today, Tom, because I don’t think agencies have really thought through the idea that, hey, all of our employees are not going to be coming physically into the office anymore. They’re going to be scattered around all of these locations for months at a time. And what is it going to take in order for that to be successful from a process standpoint, from a technology standpoint, it’s very different than the than the traditional investment models that governments, it investment organizations have looked at. And so I think it’s worth taking a little bit of time to step back. But at the same time, we really can’t wait. We really do need to start making these investments and know that we’re going to need to continue to do them.

Tom Temin: It seems like every agency then should make almost a risk. Management assessment and say, What are the essential services that I deliver as an agency? What are the systems that I have to do that service? Now? What should it look like? If I had to get all of that logic and all of that process rendered in a software defined module that I could run on my own little server if I need to, or go to this, that or the other cloud if I have to. That’s seems like the kind of costing they should be doing right now. Correct?

Gordon Bitko: They should be or they should always be looking to how to do that. I think for some of these agencies, you know, they’re so large, they should have gone through the normal continuity of operations planning and said, What are their mission essential functions? And how do those translate into which people need to be involved? They do have that to start from but then the planning at the level you talk from, how do I virtualized this? How do I deliver it through these alternative models? That’s something that I think will be new for a lot of agencies and it’s going to take some time and effort. I will say though, you know that you hear some really good success stories of localities even The city or county of Los Angeles, from what I understand did a really good job of doing exactly what you said, of creating a virtualized platform, and enabling their employees to access it remotely into a virtual desktop and perform their mission essential functions. And they were able to do it relatively quickly, which speaks to the power of the technology. It’s one thing for as big as as the city of Los Angeles is, you know that the Department of Defense has orders of magnitude larger. And for them to think through all of that, or the Department of Homeland Security. It’s a much bigger challenge.

Tom Temin: And there’s one other angle here that you alluded to, and that is that some people may never some percentage of the workforce may never return to being in the office again, because some of them will say, Hey, this is great, you know, why should I go back to that place and put up with all the traffic. But then you also have the contractor workforce, which may or may not return or won’t return in the same way. So it seems like there’s almost a new model agencies have to understand and vendors have to understand of where people are, because that I don’t think we’re going to go back to the way it was 100% in one location anymore.

Gordon Bitko: I hesitate to call it a bright spot out of this whole thing because right now it’s hard to really see brightness but but ultimately long term, I think positive outcome will be the realization that governments can and should function in this more distributed model that actually lets people when you do it correctly, as effective or more effective, and to have a better balance of all the things that they need to accomplish in their lives, government employees are under a lot of stress right now, or they have families that have parents that have children, and you have to take care of them in normal circumstances to this is really highlighting the importance of the need to find ways to do that. I will add, Tom, there’s one other category of workers that has to be accounted for which is I mentioned God, the intelligence community as well and all the classified workers. And I think that there’s going to be some need to rethink how much of that work has to be done at a at a classified level and in a physical skiff, which requires people to co locate? And are there going to be alternative ways to do some of that work as well? And I don’t know the answer to that. But I’m sure the intelligence community and the Department of Defense are spending a lot of time thinking about it.

Tom Temin: And what do you hear from your old colleagues at the FBI, because great many of the agents are mostly in the field anyway, for a good part of their working days and weeks. But then you’ve got the labs, and the analysts and the intelligence people that might be working at a screen or a laboratory or a petri dish.

Gordon Bitko: That’s right. And so for some of them, they physically need to be in the office with particular specialized equipment. And that could be an agent or an analyst out in the field as well, who requires access into that field offices, specialized tools for collecting evidence or doing certain types of analysis, just like you said, from what I hear from what I understand, they’re adjusting about as well as could be expected, which means they’re figuring out ways to get the job done. But there are certainly the sort of challenges that we just talked about, where in the end, it’s requiring people to come into the office and to take pretty significant personal risk in the way that they go about doing their jobs. It’s not just the FBI. You know, that’s true of lots of government employees who are who are still coming into work and, and I certainly am very thankful for that. And hopefully everybody realizes the level of, of effort and commitment that they’re making right now to try to keep things going.

Tom Temin: Gordon Bitko is Senior Vice President of policy for the public sector at the Information Technology Industry Council. Thanks so much for joining me.

Gordon Bitko: Thank you for having me, Tom.