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Federal CIO: IT Upgrade Fund is ‘Single Biggest Opportunity’ to Make Dent in Legacy IT

Federal CIO Tony Scott

Federal CIO Tony Scott // Susan Walsh/AP

Federal Chief Information Officer Tony Scott on Tuesday called on industry technology stakeholders to support the Obama administration’s proposed $3.1 billion IT modernization fund.

Speaking at the Brocade Federal Forum in Washington, Scott said the “time for action is now” to modernize the government’s aging systems some of which are decades old – or face the technological equivalent of a crash landing.

Over the next three years, Scott said more than $3 billion worth of federal IT investments will reach end-of-life, adding to the government’s legacy technology problem. The government currently spends nearly 80 percent of the $80-plus billion IT budget on maintenance with little left over for modernizing or developing new systems.

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“I’d like each of you, whatever role you are in, to align with us around this important initiative,” Scott said. “This is not one of those situations where it’s going to get better if we wait. It’s not a partisan issue. This is the single biggest opportunity I know of to do something different in this space.”

Scott previously made his case before the House oversight committee in May. There are indications Congress is warming to the idea of setting aside a pool of money agencies could borrow against to modernize their systems and pay back over time.

On Tuesday, Scott said the initial $3.1 billion investment could stretch to “fund about $15 billion of new applications and infrastructure over the next several years,” but for the proposal to pass Congress, it will have to ensure rigorous vetting of funds.

As it stands, a board consisting of the federal CIO and other tech and procurement experts would review business cases brought by agency CIOs to determine what projects get funding.

Some agency CIOs say they would jump at the opportunity to make the case for IT projects before experts instead of less tech-savvy congressional appropriators.

“A CIO like myself can come to the board, make the case for modernizing old systems, how we’d replace it, what it would cost, what it might save and how to pay it back,” said Transportation Department CIO Richard McKinney last week at a Washington tech and procurement conference. If Congress is serious about getting legacy out, this makes sense.”

Social Security Administration CIO Rob Klopp, who also spoke at that conference, said the government’s annual budget cycle doesn’t lend itself well to long-term business cases, which is problematic for modernizing IT systems over time.

Rather than allocating budget dollars to long-term modernization projects, Klopp said agencies like SSA are handcuffed into “paving the cow pasture a little bit.”

The modernization fund would also allow large agencies with impactful legacy systems -- SSA’s benefits systems affects millions of Americans, for example -- to continue running those systems while upgrades are in place so as not to interrupt service.

Klopp said agencies like SSA could also use fund dollars to retire decades of technical debt wrapped up in legacy projects.

“I couldn’t be more supportive of the president’s IT modernization fund,” Klopp said.

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