|Through the prism of the US’ inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a House committee chewed over familiar issues plaguing the US’ government’s technology use and modernization efforts.|
On 15 July, the House Budget Committee held a virtual hearing titled “Software Update Required: COVID-19 Exposes Need for Federal Investments in Technology” to highlight the effects of underfunding of technology programs in the federal government has had in hindering efforts to combat COVID-19 and measures to mitigate its impacts. The shortcomings of federal information technology (IT) procurements, processes, and performance is one of the areas where there is bipartisan agreement on many of the issues and proposed solutions. However, Republicans and Democrats often differ on funding for civilian IT programs, a feature of the ongoing debate about another COVID-19 stimulus package. And this was the line that divided the chair and ranking member of the committee on how to address acknowledged failures in how federal and state governments distributed aid to people and businesses. Because the House Budget Committee does not have direct jurisdiction over technology programs other than setting broad parameters in the years it drafts and passes a budget resolution to guide Congressional funding, the impact of this hearing is more in the vein of shaping discussion in the House on how it should address the funding and governance of IT programs, which. Now total more than $90 billion annually of the more than $1.2 trillion in funds Congress doles out every year.
Chair John Yarmuth (D-KY) claimed “[r]ash funding cuts over the past decade have prevented the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) from modernizing its information technology (IT) systems, deteriorating the agency’s ability to not only carry out its core function of tax collection and enforcement, but also needlessly prolonging the delivery of stimulus payments to workers and families during the coronavirus pandemic and recession.” He asserted that “[t]he coronavirus pandemic has proved that the quicker the response the better the outcome – and that the steps taken by Congress to help American workers and families are only as effective as the agencies delivering that relief.” Yarmuth claimed “[u]nfortunately, the IRS is not alone in its inability to meet the needs of the American people in this perilous time.”
- Instead of helping to generate much-needed solutions, outdated IT systems are worsening an already difficult situation as Americans grapple with unreliable or insufficient internet access, useless automated systems, and overwhelmed and underprepared agencies. Emergency assistance programs across the board have been hampered by our antiquated IT systems – leaving families with delayed relief or no relief at all.
- The most glaring example is unemployment assistance. We are four months into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and there are still tens of thousands of workers who have filed for jobless claims but have not yet received a single payment. Many are going into debt or default, skipping meals, or losing their homes.
- State unemployment offices, already underfunded and understaffed, were left completely unprepared for the massive influx of need. And a big reason for that is the fact that national administrative funding is essentially the same as it was in 2001 – and that’s before accounting for inflation.
- This lack of federal investment combined with old hardware, crashing web servers, and the need for new-hires proficient in COBOL – their systems’ 60-year old coding language – have left states scrambling. Their antiquated IT systems failed and continue to fail repeatedly – and American workers, those who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, are paying the price.
- This aspect of our ongoing crisis is not new. The federal government has long sought to prioritize modern, secure, and shared IT solutions, but funding uncertainties – stemming from constrained discretionary funding under budget caps, shutdown threats, and continuing resolutions – have made agencies more likely to update instead of modernize. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that while the total share of federal IT spending is increasing, it isn’t because we are investing in better and new technology. It’s because the price of updating our existing systems is snowballing as our ancient software becomes increasingly outdated and hardware parts nearly impossible to find.
Yarmuth said “[t]o date, Congress has passed legislation that includes $1 billion in grants to state unemployment offices to help process claims faster – and more is needed.” He argued that “[b]y refusing to bring the “HEROES Act” (H.R.6800) to the floor, [Senate Majority] Leader [Mitch] McConnell (R-KY) is holding up an additional $1 billion for the federal Technology Modernization Fund and a combined $5.5 billion to help schools, libraries, and impacted families access high speed connectivity and devices to facilitate distance learning – something we must prioritize in order to protect our children and educators.” Yarmuth remarked “earlier this month, House Democrats passed the “Moving Forward Act,” (H.R.2) a comprehensive infrastructure package that includes $100 billion in broadband funding to extend high speed internet to underserved and hard to reach communities.” He declared that “[w]e have to invest in modernization now, so that the federal government can help provide workers, families, and state and local governments with the necessary tools and resources to support our nation’s recovery efforts.”
Ranking Member Steve Womack (R-AR) said “[f]ederal information technology (IT) systems are critical to providing Americans with a wide range of government services and information…[and] [i]n the 21st century, it’s no secret that IT is fundamental to many different operations.” He contended “[t]hese systems are aimed at improving program delivery, maximizing effectiveness and efficiency, and ensuring data security…[and] [i]f we cannot maintain and optimize this critical infrastructure, the federal government will be unable to execute one of its essential functions: providing crucial resources and services to the American people.” Womack asserted “[w]e should never allow the delivery of veteran health care, social security benefits, or defense initiatives to fail because of outdated and faulty IT systems.”
Womack stated that “[u]nfortunately, current federal IT upgrade efforts are faltering due to missed deadlines, cost overruns, and inadequate outcomes, including operability failure and data breaches…[and] [w]hile COVID-19 exposed additional deficiencies of federal IT systems, these shortages existed long before the current pandemic.”
- For example, in 2011, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) began an electronic health record (EHR) modernization initiative to create a single, shared system between the two departments. In 2013, and after spending more than $1 billion on the program, the VA and DOD announced they were abandoning the project with nothing to show for the money spent other than a painful lesson learned. This is not only a waste of taxpayer dollars, but, more disconcerting, it hurts our nation’s service members and veterans who depend on these health care services. This is the more upsetting part for me. Program indecision and mismanagement have resulted in us failing those who’ve served this country.
- Where is this EHR effort at the VA today? The VA and DOD are trying this again with a new government contract from Cerner. This initiative is already nearly one year behind schedule and has yet to go live in even one medical center. I truly hope this story ends better than past VA efforts in the IT space.
Womack added “I’m not just picking on the VA’s challenges. There are other examples of how we have fallen short:
- In 2014, the Office of Personnel Management’s data was breached, which resulted in approximately 21.5 million compromised records.
- The HITECH Act, which was part of the 2009 stimulus package, allocated billions of dollars for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for IT development. To date, HHS still does not have an interoperable system and continues to struggle with siloed and fragmented data due to the different electronic health records vendors.”
Womack claimed “the question is, how do we make sure, going forward, all federal investments in IT modernization efforts result in the timely deployment of up-to-date, secure, and properly functioning systems?”
- Strong vetting and planning for proper IT implementation is key. It is imperative that these investments are met with rigorous oversight—yes, that is our job here in Congress—and agency accountability to ensure that the public is getting the best services available and taxpayer dollars are not wasted.
- But, as I mentioned last week, there is another threat to federal investments in vital government programs such as IT modernization. That is our out-of-control deficit and debt. If we don’t confront the autopilot mandatory spending that is hurtling us towards a fiscal cliff, there won’t be any money left to fund a range of prerogatives.
- Time is running out, and it’s essential that Congress directly address this problem. The Budget Committee must meet its duty and put together a budget to chart a new way forward. We need to get back to making the tough choices that will determine a brighter future. We have an obligation to current and future generations to ensure that critical programs don’t cease to exist.
- The government’s IT infrastructure is heavily dependent upon technologies that were invented in the mid-twentieth century. The coronavirus pandemic has made it abundantly clear that those systems pose extraordinary risk to government operations in a steady state environment, and they may fail catastrophically in a crisis. And yet, government budgeting rules and appropriation law have created IT acquisition challenges for almost as long as the term “IT” has existed.
- Insufficient funding for capital improvements has forced agencies to repeat a cycle in which robust plans submitted with their budget requests have to be scaled back to align with the reduced funding amounts they eventually receive. Insufficient funding leads to implementation of sub-optimal solutions with limited impact on improving efficiency. Ironically, governments bear an extra cost burden for such strategies because they must allocate expensive resources to maintain obsolete and inefficient solutions, which by any reasonable business standard should have been rationalized and replaced.
- To really change the future, we must change the rules. Today the government has challenges with cloud procurement, but the market is constantly evolving. More things will be sold as a service in the future. With enablers like quantum computing and machine learning, technology innovation will inevitably continue at an increasing rate. Given the economic, demographic, and social challenges facing this nation, the federal government must find new ways to invest in and to improve its effectiveness and efficiency to successfully meet the current and future demands of the American public. We must provide acquisition and sustainment flexibility that reflects what the commercial market is selling, and we must adapt our accounting and auditing rules to encourage, not discourage, the use of these flexibilities. We must be ready to effectively acquire and deploy modern technology solutions or risk failures in our support to our citizens, and potentially calamitous failures in our ability to govern.
Code for America Founder and U.S. Digital Response Co-Founder Jennifer Pahlka said “[t]o get government tech right, we of course need to be able to procure more modern technology platforms…[b]ut that will be insufficient if we don’t also do three things that support agility and human-centered design:
- The first is to break down the silos between policy, technology and other disciplines. Technology can’t speed a process in which most cases must be handled manually, as I described above in the case of unemployment benefits under the CARES Act. A similar problem is that many states require applicants for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) to apply for regular unemployment first, wait to receive their rejection, and only then apply for PUA. Tech, operations, policy and compliance staff must work together to solve these problems, and agile development models allow for this collaboration in ways that legacy models do not. We must even have digital professionals at the table when we craft policy; understanding how the service will be delivered is critical to getting the outcomes the policy seeks, especially now, as we face greater and greater needs and limited delivery capabilities. As the former head of the White House Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Muñoz has said, “Policy leaders must learn the skills of human-centered design, and technology must have a seat at the strategy table.”
- The second is to encourage rapid prototyping and continuous development. Our legacy process involves a requirements gathering period that can take many years, followed by the development of a Request for Proposal that can be thousands of pages long, lengthy contracting and development periods, and then a move into what’s called sustainment. This process may work for constructing buildings, but it’s simply not how good software comes to life. It is better, faster and cheaper when interdisciplinary teams start small, build iteratively, work closely with the users of the software all the way through, and continuously update and improve the application.
- The third is to demand that all services provide real-time data about their usage and that human beings are assigned to looking at that data to understand what’s working, what’s not working and what can be done about it. When Code for America started working to decrease the participation gap in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) in California, our team found that the program leadership had very little insight into the reasons people tried to apply and couldn’t, or applied but couldn’t make it through the burdensome process despite being eligible. It wasn’t that they didn’t care; the systems they’d been given to manage eligibility and enrollment simply didn’t provide that data, and what data they did get was usually months, if not years, old by the time they got it. Creating an online application that was simpler and easier to use had huge benefits for the people applying, but an equally important benefit was that the system was instrumented to allow decision-makers to see in near real-time where users got stuck and begin to fix those issues. This access to real-time data is part of what’s needed as we deal with today’s crisis.
National Employment Law Project Executive Director Rebecca Dixon urged “Congress to immediately take the following steps, which will help stabilize and ensure greater accountability and transparency over the state IT systems:
1. Fully Fund the States Linked to Strong Accountability Standards: Most importantly, the federal government must make a sizable commitment to provide dedicated funding of IT modernization and far more adequate levels of basic state unemployment insurance (UI) administration funding. With the additional funding should come strong federal oversight and enforcement, including tangible requirements that the modernization process include input from stakeholders (including workers and their advocates) from beginning to end, and comprehensive user testing that ensures participation from Black people who are faced with the most barriers, and all communities of color; those on the other side of the digital divide; people with limited English proficiency; and people with disabilities.
2. Expand the Department of Labor’s (DOL) IT Expertise and Mandate to Ensure Full Access: There is extremely limited independent capacity and IT expertise on the part of DOL to actively monitor and enforce the state UI systems. DOL should create a specialized unit devoted to the IT, phone and other state UI agency infrastructure needs. DOL’s new regime should include strong measures of state success and failure (including adequate customer service) that can be assigned a grade that should be prominently featured on the DOL website to provide transparency to the public and compare the operation of programs across the states. For example, DOL should extend the timeliness regulations to ensure that workers are able to successfully reach a claims agent by phone within a reasonable period of time. In addition, DOL’s Center for Civil Rights should also be fully resourced to more promptly investigate and respond to complaints and make the results of their investigations public. DOL should also have the authority to review IT contractor agreements, audit contractors where necessary, and require the states to produce data documenting contractor performance.
3. Federal Commission on Modernization of Federally Funded Benefit Programs: A federal task force should be immediately created to evaluate the performance of federally funded programs, including UI, and make recommendations for reform related to funding, the creation of robust standards and metrics, contractor accountability, best practices, and the adequacy of federal agency oversight and enforcement, including compliance with civil rights laws. The task force should also explore whether certain administrative and infrastructure functions (especially in response to disasters and public health emergencies) should be federalized, and whether federal agencies should have the authority to negotiate favorable terms with IT and phone system vendors that take advantage of the federal government’s ability to leverage cost savings while also producing more compatible and high-quality state systems. Federalization in whole or part may be the simplest solution. The patchwork of state systems means that each state has to struggle with the modernization process and vendor negotiations. While some states have banded together into consortia to get a better deal, those consortia can dissolve as political leadership shifts in allied states or as states develop different modernization goals, wasting time and money. A federal process could achieve these goals on the largest possible scale.
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