USA Federal Government Cloud Computing – From Cloud First to Cloud Smart
In their blog the U.S. Government’s long road to adopting the cloud Increment provide a detailed synopsis of the history of the adoption of GovCloud computing in America.
This charts the 20 year evolution from the early 2000’s e-commerce directives through the watershed moment of Vivek Kundra’s ‘Cloud First’ policy, through to today’s ‘FedRAMP’ initiative, a program to vet and authorize Cloud providers as being compliant with the many required security policies.
The potential growth market is staggeringly huge. The US Govt spends $86 billion on tech per year, but as of 2017 only 3% of this spending was on the Cloud. They operate over 6,000 data centres.
Wired writes that the main drivers will be IT consolidation, shared services and the need to offer improved online citizen services.
Understandably this scale presents significant challenges, explained in this NextGov interview with one of the chief authors of the policies intended to guide this transformation. It has also courted controversy, notably the ‘JEDI’ contract, with Microsoft rather than AWS being awarded this enormous procurement. Jared Serbu writes on the Federal News Network that there is probable justification to question the decision.
Other key challenges include the fact that over half of the Government Cloud projects haven’t actually gone through the FedRAMP system.
One of the principle goals of Cloud adoption for the USA Government is to drive more and better Digital Government experiences.
A first area to highlight is the IT organizations own use of technology. For example the GSA’s launch of an Amazon style e-commerce marketplace that federal agencies can use to purchase products under the micropurchase threshold of $10,000, and the relaunch of CIO.gov.
There are also initiatives to accelerate adoption of the required skills, such as U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris introducing legislation, the Digital Service Act, which would state and local government agencies federal support for investing in tech and modernization efforts. This would direct $50 million of funding to the USDS, and would require that 50 percent of the money be spent on hiring talent rather than procuring technology.
It’s a wave of innovation not limited to only the Federal Government. For example California is pioneering a New Digital Agenda, highlighting the type of policy innovations that underpins this type of transformation, notably their legislating the CCPA, consumer data privacy legislation akin to Europe’s GDPR.
Modernizing Technology Act – Catalyst for Economic Growth through Legacy Transformation
The ultimate outcome of these projects and the primary challenge is one of ‘Legacy Modernization’.
As the GAO reports the US Government spends $90 billion per year on IT, much of it on legacy systems. Their research of 65 federal legacy systems identified technologies ranging from 8 to 51 years old, and as NextGov reports the costs of maintaining these systems is substantial. Those 10 most in need of modernization cost $337 million a year to operate and maintain.
It presents other serious issues as well. Many depend on ancient programming languages like COBOL, have unsupported hardware or software, and operate with known security vulnerabilities.
For example the Air Force “System 1” supports the wartime readiness of aircraft, via a 14-year-old COBOL mainframe, and the department struggles to find the staff who can maintain the code and infrastructure, swelling costs from $21.8 million in 2018 to $35 million in 2020.
NextGov reports the service awarded a contract to get the system to a cloud environment and incrementally update COBOL into a modern language. The ballpark savings: $34 million annually.
Industrializing Digital Transformation
Addressing these challenges and accelerating the rate of Cloud migration presents the USA with a historic scale of opportunity.
Wholly embracing the full scope of transformation it represents, not just “lifting and shifting” IT from one data to another, will act as the catalyst for a monumental scale of deep systems modernization, and with that the business processes those systems are used to implement.
Enabling agencies to reinvent themselves and fundamentally change how they operate and deliver services can impact every facet of government and the citizens they serve.
This is why the real theme of GovCloud is not the technology but the action of Legacy Modernization. Those 6,000 data centres and the vast array of old software applications they run represent the ‘old way of doing things’.
For example just one of many scenarios is the Defence Health Agency’s plans to integrate all of the military’s disparate medical facilities and patient care efforts into a unified infrastructure. A project driven by an imperative to modernize and consolidate IT, and from that achieve an entirely new capability of the transition to a single electronic health records platform dubbed MHS GENESIS.
Consider every agency undertaking an equivalent modernization, across the whole breadth of the US public sector. This represents such a scale of work, of new skills requirements and vendor innovation opportunities, that it will act as a major stimulus for the American tech sector, already a behemoth economic growth vehicle.
Writing on Linkedin Mark Forman, VP Digital Government for Unisys Federal, describes:
“If the federal government is going to achieve real modernization of agency operations, executives are going to have to get much more engaged in defining a modern operating model and driving investments to achieve the desired objectives.
In my experience, it takes a team of line workers and technologists to figure out people, process, data, and technology alternatives. It takes leaders being actively engaged in understanding the cost-benefit-risk tradeoffs, then committing to the investment and business plan throughout its execution.”
Watch his interview on GovMatters.tv, where he discusses the state of federal IT, and how modernization efforts are faring in government.
On the 12th December 2017 President Trump signed the Modernizing Technology Act into law.
This act initiated the process of large-scale, industrialized Legacy Modernization, with it intended to support achieving the IT Modernization Goal.
The Federal Times offers this primer, explaining that the act built on and amalgamated two previous modernization bills, authorizing $100m funding for rejuvenating existing IT systems in 2018, with an additional $150m earmarked for the next year.
“proposals requesting $2 million to $10 million hit ‘the sweet spot’ for approval.”
Going into more strategic detail writing in the WSJ Deloitte describes how:
“The federal government spent $94.1 billion on IT in 2017, much of it allocated to sustaining aging applications and systems architected to solve day-to-day problems rather than to deliver on high-value emerging trends like digital, analytics, and artificial intelligence.
These maintenance efforts can leave a dearth of funding for IT enhancements, expanded capabilities, and innovation efforts that keep pace with citizens’ service demands.”
Some government agencies are undertaking automated refactoring, which converts legacy code into modern languages such as Java or .NET. This approach can maintain user interface and functionality while eliminating dependence on the mainframe.
This 2016 GovTech article sets the scene describing the hand over from President Obama to President Trump, emphasizing the common theme of Legacy Modernization:
“The federal government has unlimited opportunities to become more efficient, more constituent-aware and more customer-friendly, reflecting what many of the states have been doing for the past 25 years. B
ecause most federal processes still are based on traditional, paper-based systems, in many cases requiring someone to come to a counter or make a phone call to conduct business, those practices are an obvious place in which to focus the initial digital transformation.”
The author describes example case studies, such as the National Park implementing the Your Pass Now digital pass system and an especially interesting feature of the article is that it highlights the opportunity for innovation not just in terms of the technologies deployed for digital services, but also the commercial model possibilities for how these solutions are sourced.
They describe no-cost, transaction-based, public-private partnership models, where a technology supplier acts rather as a partner, where a private company makes the investment in building the solution, then charges users a minimal efficiency fee.