A First Step to Upgrade “8-Track” Government Systems

Removing regulatory barriers to allow federal and state agencies to work together is a good start 

Writing in the Wall Street Journal this weekend, Andy Kessler described how wasted tax dollars and outdated IT systems are hindering the nation’s ability to address the COVID-19 pandemic, pointing to alarming examples at the state and federal level.

In New Jersey, Kessler writes, “only 42% of all state and local government computer systems were implemented after Oct. 25, 2001,” and the “rest are “old or broken,” including two-thirds of those used for child support and half of those used for unemployment or vehicle registration.”

At the federal level, outdated rules and systems at the Food and Drug Administration slowed the application “for a much-needed COVID-19 antibody test developed in January,” according to Kessler. Scientists had to submit their application by paper mail and CD-ROM. Now, outdated IT at the Internal Revenue Service will leave Americans waiting weeks for their $1,200 electronic transfers or months if they require a paper check. 

Just yesterday, Politico reported that the Small Business Administration’s system for receiving emergency loan applications was breached exposing the data of thousands of businesses.

For decades, government watchdogs have warned about the nation’s poor management of information technology, or the “8-track” systems that Kessler describes. 

For example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified government information security as a “high-risk” area back in 1997 and added “Improving the Management of IT Acquisitions and Operations” to the list in 2015. Inspectors General routinely diagnose similar problems.

There is no shortage of alarming examples of mismanaged federal IT projects, including some that create grave threats to national security and public safety, among many other problems. 

Fortunately, the government has new teams working to modernize outdated IT systems, as Lincoln Network executive director Garrett Johnson explained in a recent post about collapsing IT infrastructure during the pandemic:

Organizations like the United States Digital Service and the newly deployed United States Digital Response are on the frontlines of offering rapid technical assistance. State and federal services that are likely to experience traffic spikes should turn to these resources for site reliability engineering support and other technical help. Proactive auditing of systems before crises emerge is needed to ensure government infrastructure uses the same modern technology large companies have leveraged to great success. Especially important is the deployment of technological infrastructure with low overhead during down times but can scale up near-instantly without human intervention during times of stress, otherwise known as serverless applications or hosting. “

Now, lawmakers are looking for creative ways to mobilize these resources to help state and local governments on the frontlines of the current public health emergency.  

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and 15 Democratic colleagues sent a letter urging Congressional leaders to remove regulatory restrictions that prohibit federal agencies like the U.S. Digital Service and Technology Transformation Service (TTS) within the General Services Administration to provide assistances to state and local governments: 

Unfortunately, both the USDS and the TTS are hindered by regulatory hurdles that significantly slow down or prevent them from supporting state and local governments. For TTS, the current rules require complex Intergovernmental Cooperation Act agreements that often take three to four months to negotiate. In addition, OMB policies prevent states from using the best-in-class digital products developed by TTS without an extensive waiver process. During this national emergency, when speed is vital for millions of Americans, this red tape is preventing the federal government’s skilled technologists from helping the state and local agencies that need them the most.

The Administration is already working to remove red tape to help states and local communities confront public health challenges. Allowing more cooperation between federal, state, and local governments on information technology projects is another common sense deregulatory measure.

Moving forward, the tech and policy communities must work together to reinvent the government’s approach to technology management. The pandemic has reexposed why we can’t afford an 8-Track government.

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