Lawmakers Take on Federal IT Fossils

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A Dec. 22 letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden seeks answers about the age -- and overall health -- of the agency’s mission-critical computer systems.

Federal Chief Information Officer Tony Scott has called the problem of outdated federal IT systems a “crisis that's bigger than Y2K.”

Now, some of the same lawmakers who wrote and championed last year’s sweeping IT acquisition reform bill are digging into federal agencies’ reliance on aging software and archaic hardware.

A Dec. 22 letter from a bipartisan coterie of lawmakers to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden seeks answers about the age -- and overall health -- of the agency’s mission-critical computer systems.

The letter was signed by nine members of Congress, including the chairmen and ranking members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

It asks NASA to provide details on:

  • The agency’s top three mission-critical legacy IT systems in need of modernization or replacement, as well as the planned date to switch over the old tech.
  • The top five oldest IT hardware and infrastructure used at NASA.
  • The oldest programming languages -- such as COBOL or FORTRAN -- used by NASA. The agency also needs to explain how many staff members are available to maintain code in these languages and whether they support any mission-critical programs.
  • How many total IT staff the agency employs, including contractors. Also, what are the key certifications required for staff and what percentage of NASA’s IT workforce is certified?

Lawmakers requested answers by Jan. 29.

It’s unclear if the committees sent letters to any other agencies. The letter was sent to “further our oversight of agencies use of legacy IT,” lawmakers wrote in the letter.

NASA, which lists 67 IT investments totaling some $1.4 billion on the governmentwide IT Dashboard, has been dinged in the past for its handling of IT management. Last month, the oversight committee released scorecards grading 24 of the largest federal agencies on four key elements of the 2014 Federal Information Technology and Acquisition Reform Act, including data center consolidation and IT portfolio review savings.

Overall, lawmakers rated NASA an "F,” one of just three agencies to earn a failing score.

The letter comes amid increased attention on government’s legacy IT challenge.

Nearly three-quarters of the $80 billion spent by the federal government on information technology each year goes toward keeping so-called legacy systems running, according to the Government Accountability Office.

GAO is working on a new report examining legacy IT in federal agencies to be released next year. The government currently operates 28 systems at least 25 years old and 11 systems at least 35 years old, according to the preliminary findings from that forthcoming GAO report.  

Refreshing federal IT fossils has taken up more space on Obama administration’s IT agenda, too.

“Much of the government today runs on very old, outdated technology,” Scott warned members of the President’s Management Advisory Board last month, where he made the comparison with the year 2000 glitch that spooked agency IT managers at the turn of the millennium.

(Image via /Shutterstock.com)

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