Former CIO urges lawmakers to relax TMF paybacks

The $1 billion boost to the Technology Modernization Fund can help agencies, but some changes to strict payback rules will help CIO shops get started on much-needed modernization.

tech budget (Sergey Nivens/

Government agencies stand to benefit from the Technology Modernization Fund's massive capital influx this year, but lawmakers would do well to adjust the repayment and cost savings requirements, a former agency CIO told lawmakers on Tuesday.

"I spent a lot of time browbeating people and I know people who -- they were simply afraid of the oversight, afraid of the visibility and they were also afraid of the repayment which is why I think that has to be looked at," Max Everett, former CIO at the Department of Energy, told a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee.

Everett was testifying to the panel about the costs of legacy IT systems alongside Kevin Walsh, director of Information Technology and Cybersecurity at the Government Accountability Office, and other former CIOs.

TMF, a revolving fund of no-year money established by 2017 legislation, is a hot topic among federal agency technology personnel because of the $1 billion plus-up to the fund under the American Rescue Plan Act.

Walsh said that one of the disadvantages to how the TMF functions is that the justification for projects relies on cost savings. He pointed out that the Office of Personnel Management prior to its 2014 hack actively decided not to modernize its IT to enable data at rest to be encrypted. Had OPM gone through with that modernization, the agency would not have necessarily saved any money as expressed on its technology balance sheet.

"Modernization is not just about cost savings," Walsh said. "Cost savings can be a part of it, but there's more to this discussion than just the money."

The increased TMF funding has also drawn attention to the relatively few agencies who have successfully applied for and received money -- the list of current initiatives includes 12 projects from seven agencies.

Everett said that while he supports the repayment requirements being waived or deferred, agencies must follow the TMF process that forces them to plan out current and future costs as well as sundown plans for legacy infrastructure.

"When Congress gives a billion dollars to a program most people don't understand, I know for a fact there are people eyeballing that money who want to cut the line and avoid the process. I would strongly urge you to make sure your oversight does not allow that to happen. That process has to be followed," Everett said.

The hearing on Tuesday was led by Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), chairwoman of the subcommittee on emerging threats and spending oversight. She noted the increased funding for TMF this year and acknowledged Everett's success using it while at DOE.

"Although we don't see the impact of these funds for years to come, this is a major step forward to reduce reliance on legacy IT and I hope that the fund prioritizes agency plans to replace the legacy IT systems that we've discussed today," the senator said.

A group of former government IT officials and chief technology officers including Todd Park and Jen Pahlka issued a letter in March to the Office of Management and Budget and the federal chief information officer urging them to allow funds from the American Rescue Plan be provided to agencies without repayment.

"The requirement that agencies reimburse the fund has historically made agencies hesitant to use it for the projects that matter most, and resulted in the TMF funding projects that do not sufficiently impact the agenda of much-needed digital transformation and security," the former officials wrote.