Federal Technology Will Never, Ever Be Hotter

Note: This post initially appeared on LinkedIn

The world of federal technology will never be as exciting as it is right now.

Federal technology was clearly an important topic when I moved to the Merritt Group from the Newspaper Association of America in April 2015. But it was not discussed much past the Beltway. Our federal IT community knew that dramatic change was coming and coming fast. No one else really did though.

fed IT modernization
The 2016 Presidential Election exposed many faults about our country, including our inadequate cyber posture. For too long, our nation’s approach to cybersecurity had been piecemeal, fixing things on the fly and applying patches without addressing the underlying problem – the use of hopelessly outdated technology.

Every once in a while, the “hopelessness” of federal technology is revealed. One of my clients is pushing an automated budget solution that allows federal agencies to update and revamp budgets in real-time. When the solution was first presented to me, I was confused.

“Why is this needed?” I asked, stupidly, thinking about how budgets are developed in most private companies.

“Because agencies are doing their budgets in Excel,” came the response.

Spreadsheets? To create billion dollar budgets? I use spreadsheets to keep track of my spending and it’s inadequate. And I’m not spending billions of dollars.

The election, however, brought this issue to light. Yes, Donald Trump’s rhetoric aimed at the government has included many things that were untrue. This was not one of them. It has become readily apparent that one of the reasons so many are so dissatisfied with government is due to poor technology that leads to poor interactions.

With Trump’s surprise election win, it brought to mind the clichĂ© of “running government like a business” because Trump, it was assumed, would bring that CEO mentality to the White House. Of course, we’ve learned that Trump’s idea of being CEO is a tad different than, say, Steve Jobs’ or Mark Zuckerberg’s. Still, we know technology is on the mind of every CEO.

Trump’s election also brought with it a level of scrutiny and media attention to the Beltway that is simply unprecedented. Look at the latest version of the Modernizing Government Technology Act. In 2016, it was a buried story, underneath the waves of election coverage.

In 2017, it’s front page news. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, has made headlines for his push to modernize federal IT and has already stated that addressing our country’s shortage of cybersecurity talent is his next goal.

It really struck me when I went to our office’s kitchen to make a cup of coffee with CNN on in the background. I wasn’t paying attention until I heard the word “modernization” and, there it was, CNN discussing federal IT modernization. On what planet was I now residing?!?

The level of media interest into the current President means that anything he touches has the potential to go viral. When he signed the cyber security executive order – curiously, the day after he fired James Comey – the news coverage that accompanied the order vastly overshadowed the coverage that any previous cyber security policy had gotten.

To show what Trump can do for a topic, an editor of a federal-specific website confided that his site broke the news of the initial federal hiring freeze. By being first out with a story, it went viral. The editor shared that interest was so great and the visits came so furiously, that he was scared to death that the site was crash. What a problem to have, right?

The increased interest in Trump is only good for federal IT, because the situation of legacy IT needs to be addressed. Estimates range from 75 to 90 percent of annual federal IT spending is on operating and maintaining old technology. It’s an absurd split that shines a light on wasteful government spending and a lack of innovation.

As we move through 2017, the issue of modernizing federal IT systems may become one of the biggest stories, period. I don’t mean just in the Beltway, but in the business world at large. A federal government with funding and motivation is a very good thing for industry.

Of course, the next step is to make sure the rhetoric leads to action. The American Technology Council will meet for the first time today, a hopeful positive first step in that direction. The MGT Act sailed through the House and now heads to the Senate.

It appears modernizing federal technology may be the one bi-partisan issue left in Washington. Let’s hope it stay that way because the technology needed to transform the federal government exists. It’s time to put that technology to work.

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