Government’s Growing Problem: Paying Its Technical Debt

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Could automation help chip away at the technical debt agencies have accrued?

When I was growing up, I had a large poster in my computer room, also known as my parent’s basement, that proudly offered 101 other things to worry about now that data loss on floppy disks was a thing of the past. It was Verbatim’s way of claiming higher reliability compared with other disk manufacturers. Every time that one of my Verbatim disks failed, I would mount its corpse along the sides of that poster to create a visual counterpoint to its reliability claim. Because floppy disks failed a lot, it became quite a display. Even my friends would bring me their failed disks to add to what was either a geeky shrine or perhaps a nerdy form of high art.

I should probably mention, especially now that I am a professional product reviewer, that even though the poster’s zero failure claims were found to be untrue, that Verbatim did offer high reliability and superior floppy disks overall. Dysan floppy disks were also extremely reliable, as were those made by 3M, particularly their Imation series.

But back to the poster. Occasionally, in addition to decorating it, I would even read the entries. While most of the things that we were supposed to worry about were non-sensical stuff like the Snallygaster, many of them would ironically become serious problems in later years. Climate change comes to mind as one of those. Climate change was kind of distant and funny back in the 1980s, before it evolved into one of the biggest threats to our survival as a species today.

Whenever I hear about a new problem, especially if it’s kind of quirky in some way, I wonder if it would be worthy enough of being added to that poster. That immediately came to mind when I heard about a new buzz word making the rounds to describe a problem that, while it’s not unique to government, does seem to be more prevalent there: technical debt.

The concept of technical debt is not completely new. In fact, the General Services Administration was warning agencies about it as far back as 2015. In that way, it’s a lot like climate change from my poster, something that was interesting if not amusing in the past, but which is growing into a serious problem now.

In many ways, the definition of technical debt is still being defined. But pretty much everyone agrees that it’s mostly based on the cost of maintaining aging software and systems, especially those which have existed well beyond their expected or planned lifecycles. So in essence, an agency buys software or a computer system and takes on some technical debt right away because in addition to whatever the item costs, they need to pay people to maintain it. Hopefully, when a system is new, that does not involve too much labor. However, many agencies try and hold on to systems as long as they can to avoid new capital expenses, even though that often means adding manual processes and patches to maintain security and usability. So the technical debt of owning that system grows.

There was a House hearing back in 2015 about IT modernization where some shocking facts about technical debt, though it was not commonly called that quite yet, came to light. It might have also been the first time that The Pareto Principle, first conceived in 1896, was applied to government IT. The Pareto Principle states that for many events, 80 percent of the effects can be contributed to 20 percent of the causes. For government IT, it was discovered that 75 percent of the IT budget in 2015 was earmarked for operating and maintaining legacy equipment, with only 25 percent going to new technology buys.

That is a pretty incredible amount of technical debt and has actually gotten worse in recent years, with the overwhelming majority of the government’s IT budget going to fund aging systems. Like all debt, technical debt is bad because the process of satisfying it actually prevents efforts to eliminate it. In a sense, the government is paying off the interest on its technical debt by maintaining legacy and aging systems, with nothing left over to purchase new systems that would be much more efficient and less labor-intensive overall.

It seems like federal IT managers are aware of the problem. The recent Accenture Federal Digital Decoupling Study reported that 80 percent of respondents believed that technical debt at their agency is limiting their ability to augment or modify existing legacy systems. And 81 percent said that technical debt and legacy systems needed to be addressed before they could consider moving to the cloud.

Removing technical debt might not be that easy, especially given that it eats up so much of the federal budget. Jamie Duncan, senior cloud architect at Red Hat, recently told WTOP that one way to do it would be automating manual processes. And once that automation is in place, a legacy system could more easily be replicated or reconstructed in the cloud, essentially modernizing what was previously a legacy app while resetting or removing further technical debt. Doing that for up to 80 percent of government IT won’t be easy, but “at the end of the day, you have to pay the piper,” Duncan said.

It’s good that folks are starting to see technical debt for the danger that it is. If we ever want to modernize our government, we first need to eliminate the technical debt we’ve accumulated over the years in a somewhat misguided effort to avoid new capital expenditures. We are way past the tipping point where that should have already happened. At least the enemy has a name now. If I still had my classic poster, I might add technical debt to the list of troublesome topics. I’m sure the Snallygaster wouldn’t mind an early retirement to make the room.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys