The ‘Unsung Hero’ of IT Modernization

One of the key perks of the recently passed Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act that’s often touted is the $500 million pot of money it would provide agencies to improve IT, enhance cybersecurity and fund other technology-related activities over the next two years.

Agencies would have to submit proposals to a Technology Modernization Board to request funds and agree to pay that money back within five years.

Despite the hype around the legislation, government leaders seem to be taking a level-headed approach when accounting for the ways in which the MGT Act can help solve their modernization struggles.

“We should not bank on the MGT Act, but it is a good idea and I think that idea is powerful,” said Dominic Sale, Deputy Associate Administrator for the Office of Information, Integrity, and Access at the General Services Administration. “And I think there are many of us who think it can be of help. [But] this is not our plan A.”

Sale explained that he wasn’t diminishing the fact that money will be available through the MGT Act, but he cautioned that even if funding is authorized it doesn’t mean that it will be appropriated by Congress.

Sale’s remarks came during a panel about IT modernization at Smart Cyber, Symantec’s 14th Government Symposium. He said the real benefit of the MGT Act is that it provides flexibility for funding IT projects.

“The unsung hero [of the MGT Act] may be the working capital funds that are established in all the agencies,” he said. “What MGT had really meant to address are the constraints on spending and the way money moves within government and the expiration of funds and the insufficient working capital funds, so giving the agencies the opportunity to pull those funds and carry them over year to year may be kind of the best thing that comes out of MGT — and that’s a good thing. That’s nothing to sneer at.”

The bill, which passed Congress as part of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, is still awaiting a final signature from the president. But even then, the road to modernization will be an involved journey for agencies, some of which are maintaining systems that are decades old. And these aren’t just any systems, but critical systems that they rely on to execute their mission. Any disruption to services would impact services.

“Those mission-specific applications don’t have the opportunity for modernization, unless there is money and almost a no-harm approach to it [modernizing],” said George Chambers, Executive Director of the Office of Enterprise Application Development and Information Technology Infrastructure at the Health and Human Services Department.

Chambers said the MGT Act reminds him of the parable about an individual sitting on the side of a river. This individual saw bodies floating downstream and pulled each person out to resuscitate them but never had the opportunity to go upstream and figure out how to prevent people from falling in the river in the first place.

Likewise, agencies are so consumed by their missions they often don’t have time to stop and address chronic technology issues. “MGT provides that opportunity for federate groups like HHS,” Chambers said.

With modernization also comes security benefits. “The idea is if I can create an infrastructure that is relatively standardized, I’ll be able to institute security protocols in a way that allows us all to uniformly benefit,” Chambers said. “If that is my objective the incentive needs to be how do I bring these mission specific organizations to modernize… [and] become a part of a more homogeneous group.”

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