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Modernizing Government IT—By Looking to the Private Sector

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By Orion Hindawi February 3, 2017

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Orion Hindawi is CEO of Tanium, which he founded in 2007.

From making our vehicles safer to accelerating disease research and allowing our businesses to operate more efficiently, new technology is revolutionizing nearly every aspect of our lives. Yet, while we are living in the world of the iPhone 7, federal procurement rules mean that government agencies we rely on often are forced to operate in the world of the Apple II.

Despite being the largest purchase of IT in the world (at approximately $78 billion a year), the federal government uses technology that remains outdated and inefficient. No private-sector business could compete trying to use the IT systems we’re relying on for vital government operations.

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As the country looks to a new president and Congress, it’s time to modernize the technology they—and the millions of federal employees—are using. That begins with a simple change in mindset: We need to stop pretending the federal government is different from the commercial space.

Because of this misguided thinking, we are wasting millions of dollars maintaining and purchasing outdated and inadequate technology that will not meet best-in-class commercial standards. In fact, this thinking has led to the government spending nearly 80 percent of its IT budget simply on maintaining existing systems.

While the Pentagon and our intelligence agencies are setting the example for how to effectively and securely manage a large enterprise network, because of these rules many civilian agencies continue to lag behind. These agencies are not that different from large private sector businesses. Ask the CIO of any civilian federal agency and the CIO of, say, any large bank what they want their IT systems to accomplish, and their answers will largely be the same: technology that can operate quickly, efficiently, securely and at scale.

The nation’s largest businesses operate at a similar size as most federal agencies. Both need to manage a tremendous volume of data and communications efficiently. They have similar security challenges. The difference is the government adds bureaucratic processes that prevent it from adopting the best technology.

Last year, we took several steps toward addressing this problem. The Obama administration assembled a commission of public and private sector IT leaders to deliver a detailed set of recommendations for strengthening our nation’s security. Congress also attempted to address this problem with measures like the Modernizing Government Technology Act, which unanimously passed the House in September, and could be brought back up in the coming weeks.

But while these efforts are encouraging, to operate at today’s scale and face today’s threats, the government needs a paradigm shift in how it approaches technology.

First and foremost, the federal government should purchase best-in-class technology with a proven record of success with large private companies. To do this, the government should increase its collaboration with the private sector, building off existing efforts such as the Category Management Leadership Council, and create an emerging technologies advisory board. This board— composed of a mix of public and private sector IT leaders—would be charged with setting standards for federal IT procurement.

At a minimum, the standards should force government agencies to meet a simple test when evaluating IT contracts: Has this technology demonstrated success in a commercial environment of equal size and complexity? This will ensure federal IT can perform as well, if not better, than private sector IT.

Second, federal agencies need enterprise platforms that are open and adaptable, and can operate securely at scale, rather than point solutions that address discrete IT needs. Such solutions are simply no longer effective for today’s complex networks. Flexible platforms exist today and are widely used by large companies across the commercial sector that operate at a scale like that of government agencies.

Finally, government too often relies on custom-built IT tools, which simply can’t keep up with the speed of today’s threats. By the time these bespoke technologies have been developed and deployed, they are no longer useful: The problems they were meant to solve have evolved beyond the scope of that technology.

If an agency concludes it must incur the cost and delays of building their own tool, they should submit proof they have examined other options and have a legitimate need. Without this guiding principle, agencies will continue to operate with aging custom systems that add years (and many millions of dollars) to the procurement process, are expensive to update and maintain and often have merely been reconfigured to meet current requirements, while the underlying structure remains years-old.

As the new administration begins the enormous task of transforming the government’s IT, it should look to the private sector for direction. Ultimately, government will solve its tech problems once it recognizes it does not exclusively have all the solutions.

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