If only Maytag made computers

As Gomer Pyle used to say to Sergeant Carter, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!”

The federal government pays at least $3 billion to maintain obsolete computers and software. Federal CIO Tony Scott tells Jason Miller that in some instances, the government pays 40 or 50 people to maintain and operate equipment that’s less powerful than an iPad. Some of this gear is no longer supported by the manufacturer, and some of the software is no longer patched...

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As Gomer Pyle used to say to Sergeant Carter, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!”

The federal government pays at least $3 billion to maintain obsolete computers and software. Federal CIO Tony Scott tells Jason Miller that in some instances, the government pays 40 or 50 people to maintain and operate equipment that’s less powerful than an iPad. Some of this gear is no longer supported by the manufacturer, and some of the software is no longer patched or otherwise supported by the publisher.

It’s an important revelation, if not a triple surprise. The hardware deficit mirrors the long-standing software deficit. The latter chains the government to some very old logic that survives successive generations of new hardware.

Predictably, that issue gets misinterpreted. In the barber shop the other day, I watched a local television station report that the government is running computers that are 50 years old. How often have you heard it said, the IRS operates “systems” that “date back the Kennedy administration.” And the system admins probably drive to work in ’63 Lincolns with suicide doors.

The logic might be 50 years old, but not the computers it runs on. In that, the government has a lot in common with banks, trading companies, airlines and other old-line organizations. That six-digit record locator you get when you book a seat dates back at least to the 1960s.

Now we know, and can quantify to some degree,

Scott points out that if the government could redeploy that $3 billion, or whatever the figure is, for modern equipment with orders of magnitude more power, it would produce savings, principally people hours freed up for more productive purposes.

Everywhere you look, the government is crying out for modernization. In my interview with Kim Weaver of the Thrift Savings Plan, she describes a multi-year effort to get customer service up to a modicum of what’s available in the private sector. The Interior Department will pay a contractor a couple of hundred million dollars to upgrade the venerable Recreation.gov. The Office of Personnel Management has a long-running challenge in trying to modernize its old IT. Veterans Affairs sees modernization requirements everywhere it looks, from its personnel system to the system it uses to schedule appointments.

Circumstances hobble public entities’ long term planning, especially capital planning. Federal managers do tend to know their long term needs. For instance, at Social Security, a longstanding mainframe investment process begins by looking at population data accumulated by the agency’s actuaries. The tech staff can know to a high degree of accuracy what its processing requirements will be — how many checks per week at what point in time.  But neither the federal government’s cash accounting nor Congressional shenanigans accommodate long-term needs very well.  At a hearing earlier this week, Acting commissioner Carolyn Colvin pleaded to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform for support for multi-year modernization support. At the same hearing, Homeland Security officials testified they’re afraid to do cybersecurity penetration testing on one critical Social Security mainframe because it’s too fragile.

This is all why Tony Scott is pushing for that modernization fund, on the theory that agencies would pay it back after they realized the savings.

Agencies must develop long term capital plans, but execute them almost like task orders via the annual appropriations process. And you know how well that works.