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9/30/2013
03:21 PM
Nitin Pradhan
Nitin Pradhan
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Dysfunctional Congress Hurts Government IT

Government IT budgeting was hard enough even before government shutdowns, says this former government CIO. What can be done to combat the dynamic with Congress?

The last time the Congress approved and the President passed the federal budget was in April 2009. The federal government has since spent over $10 trillion through CRs and without a budget that Congress has passed. So, in effect in 2013, the government is spending on a budget based out of 2009. Furthermore, since it takes three years to pass a budget, what we are really working off in IT are priorities set much earlier!

Think how your personal spending patterns would look today if you were required to spend exactly how you spent three to six years back! Ouch!

Additionally, because CRs typically are sanctioned for short durations, the government IT departments can no longer buy commodity IT in bulk or replace older non-working systems with newer, more effective and efficient products, let alone start any new programs. The impact of CRs is disastrous at best. It increases cost and complexity while reducing services to citizens and businesses, never mind the low morale it drives into federal workers.

It Gets Worse With Government Shutdowns

Agencies have somehow adapted to the inefficiencies and management challenges of CRs. But now the Congress has reached a new low whereby lawmakers can't even agree on CRs, bringing the federal government to the shutdown situation.

A shutdown is more troublesome than a CR for several reasons. A shutdown forces federal CIOs and other leadership to go into crisis mode. They must assess and designate essential from the non-essential systems. Then they must prepare those systems for a stoppage during a government shutdown and be ready to start them up again. This is a huge task in large government agencies and can refocus IT priority for months.

If Congress continues this cat-and-mouse game every few months, all that IT staff is doing is practicing systems shutdowns and startups, with IT managers dealing with temporary layoffs of its employees and contractors. That's a recipe for disaster and I think U.S. citizens deserve better!

So What Can We Do?

Two things must happen to improve the situation. First, the partisan gridlock of Congress must change. Second, government IT must change, too.

Americans might no longer think so, but most leaders in Congress are good folks willing to compromise for the improvement of the country. However, there are a few -- typically coming from gerrymandered, safe congressional districts -- who know that all it takes to get and stay elected is to succeed in their managed primary election.

Typically, these folks have no interest in compromise for the betterment of American citizens but are focused on their core partisan constituency back home. Unless we elect individuals who have a deeper respect for what's good for the nation, Congress will continue to be polarized. So make sure to get involved in your primary elections and elect reasonable, bipartisan leaders.

At the same time, federal IT initiatives remain too focused on custom IT services and the technology contractor suppliers who develop them.

These IT services are costly to develop, time-consuming to deploy and difficult to maintain and upgrade. They reduce the flexibility and agility of government IT departments. The federal government must aggressively move toward productization of services.

One example of how agencies can escape from traditional budgeting traps is through innovative matching services such as those being developed by GOVonomy, which I helped start, and others, which build collaborative working relationships between product startups, growth technology companies and the government sector.

It might take a long time before the dysfunction of Congress begins to improve. But agencies can help themselves in the meantime if they avoid the complexity of building custom solutions wherever possible and deploy more agile, commercially available solutions that are efficient to start, operate, manage or shut down.

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moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Ninja
10/3/2013 | 5:53:18 PM
re: Dysfunctional Congress Hurts Government IT
The expenses for "Obamacare" are a peanuts compared to the excessive military spending or running over a dozen spy agencies that do not talk to each other and violate the constitution on a regular basis.
TMagrini850
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TMagrini850,
User Rank: Strategist
10/3/2013 | 2:47:37 PM
re: Dysfunctional Congress Hurts Government IT
Welcome to constitutional representative democracy, which is a messy, dirty and often highly inefficient business. While it may be great to dream that government could run like a private sector business such as Amazon, you should remember most corporations are closer to dictatorships. Is that what you truly want our government to be?
moonwatcher
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moonwatcher,
User Rank: Strategist
10/2/2013 | 9:02:04 PM
re: Dysfunctional Congress Hurts Government IT
Come on IT is small change compared to the possible $2 TRILLION hit to our economy that Obamacare will be over just the next eight years. Shutting down the government is mere political theater. It won't last longer than around 7 to 10 days tops. Note that the stock market actually went UP after the shutdown. Can the budgeting process be made better? Doubtful, as long as members of congress use it to reinforce their own power.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
10/2/2013 | 7:00:40 PM
re: Dysfunctional Congress Hurts Government IT
There seems to be a misunderstanding that shutting down the government saves money. People don't realize that, even if you discount the hit to the economy, it costs hard dollars to shut down and reopen services, as Charlie says.
cbabcock
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cbabcock,
User Rank: Strategist
10/1/2013 | 11:51:40 PM
re: Dysfunctional Congress Hurts Government IT
Stopping IT services to conform to a government shutdown, a difficult task. Starting IT services to recover from a government shutdown, an even more difficult task. This is a waste of skills, time and money. It halts the momentum behind development projects and risks the loss of data that falls out of synch with normal updates, People who don't understand IT are playing a game of chicken with the federal budget..
WKash
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WKash,
User Rank: Author
10/1/2013 | 7:54:09 PM
re: Dysfunctional Congress Hurts Government IT
The big idea that needs to be embraced is getting agencies to stop building stuff,that requires big cap ex budgets, etc, and to start consuming services. That's easier said than done. If IT services move to operating budgets, they're actually at greater risk of being cut. Then you've got all the "sunk costs" in existing legacy systems, that no one wants to walk away from. A lot of these 3 year projects are more like big remodeling projects, Finally you've got a lot of employees -- and contractors -- (read "jobs") spread out across lots of Congressional home districts that are also at stake. If we can get govt. to really move to an IT services consumption model -- which is happening, by the way, as agencies move to the cloud -- that would speed up development cycles and get new technologies at work. Where to start? Unfortunately: It requires changes in Congress.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
10/1/2013 | 7:14:29 PM
re: Dysfunctional Congress Hurts Government IT
Thanks for this frank assessment. Three years is obviously too long to get through a budget process for one IT project. Imagine what Jeff Bezos would do with this process. How much would he shorten it? Amazon is hiring 70,000 seasonal employees now and will hire a percentage of them fulltime after the season. Could government learn from that model?
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
10/1/2013 | 2:25:17 PM
re: Dysfunctional Congress Hurts Government IT
Fixing partisan gridlock seems unlikely, near term. Isn't there some way to make the budgeting process itself less rigid? It sounds like part of the problem is that priorities and technology choices that tend to drift out of date are specified in the budget documents themselves. Or am I misunderstanding?
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