Biden can’t rebuild America with outdated technology

Over the next several weeks, congressional Democrats will work through the budget reconciliation process to pass as much of President BidenJoe BidenBiden on Trump acquittal: ‘Substance of the charge is not in dispute’ White House press aide resigns after threatening Politico reporter Trump conviction vote exposes GOP divide MORE’s American Rescue Plan as rules and procedure will allow. With a price tag of nearly $1.9 trillion over the next decade, this recovery legislation will address dozens of critical issues: vaccine distribution, economic impact payments, support for the unemployed, state and local funding, and safely reopening schools, just to name a few. 

However, if recent reporting is correct, one critical area of investment that Congress will reject — yet again — is funding for the government’s information technology (IT) infrastructure and cybersecurity upgrades. It has been, unfortunately, a common occurrence over the past several years for legislators and policymakers to treat IT modernization as an ancillary, rather than integral, part of a functioning, competent government. So, it seems, Congress is subjecting itself to the same myopia in this current round of negotiations.

Much like banks, pizza chains or, well, most organizations on the planet, federal agencies are, essentially, tech companies. By this I mean that nearly all agencies rely on, harness and integrate technology into all internal and external business processes, workflows, program management functions and citizen service delivery mechanisms of the organization. Nearly every federal worker relies on technology — in too many cases, bespoke or clunky software or digital tools — to do their jobs. Whether they develop their tech in-house or outsource it, most of the programs, benefits or services citizens demand from their government are provided digitally. In many ways, the relationship between citizens and their government is tied to the ability of federal agencies to competently and capably leverage technology to secure citizen data, effectively provide essential services and competently communicate important information. 

President Biden, to his credit, recognizes this issue and sought to ensure that he had the necessary funds to immediately address high-priority technology challenges. This is why his American Rescue Plan requested $9 billion in the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF). In addition, his plan sought targeted requests for other funds that would enable agencies to hire incredible talent to address the scores of vexing technology issues facing agencies and make immediate upgrades to IT operations and cybersecurity to deal with the incredible damage still being inflicted by the breach of SolarWinds and other IT systems. Biden knows that his desire to crush COVID-19 and deliver the economic recovery the country demands relies on the ability of federal agencies to immediately, and continuously, make prudent and long overdue investments in the technology that underpins every part of the government.

And yet, here we are. If the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again while expecting different results, IT modernization (or lack thereof) is the government’s version of madness. As seen in previous relief efforts, such as the CARES Act, simply directing agencies to create or significantly scale government programs that will funnel billions of dollars to impacted constituencies is not enough. These programs are often hamstrung by reliance on outdated, antiquated IT systems, causing immeasurable stress to citizens as the distribution of these services and benefits are delayed or, worse, never arrive. 

Examples are easy to find and hard to stomach. If you want to hamper vaccination data collection, fail to invest in IT modernization. If you want to expose 22+ million workers’ personally identifiable information to foreign adversaries, fail to invest in IT modernization. If you want to inflict avoidable and unnecessary harm and frustration on the millions left unemployed by COVID, fail to invest in IT modernization. Sadly, these are just three of the hundreds of IT and cybersecurity problems faced by governments at all levels. While more money would not have solved all of them, a failure to tie specific IT modernization dollars to these types of obvious issues has left our government more vulnerable to attack and less capable of serving citizens.

Our organization, the Alliance for Digital Innovation (ADI), has urged Congress and the administration to ensure agencies have the agile acquisition authorities, flexible funding and modern risk management practices to successfully leverage commercial technologies that meet mission outcomes. And we are proud to partner with numerous other associations to call on Congress to support targeted measures in this relief legislation to ensure that critically important — but often overlooked — funds for technology improvements and cybersecurity enhancements are included.

Time is of the essence for President Biden to execute his vision to rebuild America. Doing so will require a competent, capable, effective government that has the right strategy, leadership  and resources to effectuate his plan. Congress needs to support every element of the American Rescue Plan, including each amount requested for IT and cybersecurity improvements to ensure government operations during — and after — our COVID-19 recovery will provide better, more secure, and more accessible government services and relief to Americans in need. 

Matthew T. Cornelius is the executive director of the Alliance for Digital Innovation, a unified voice for commercial innovators to ensure the public sector benefits from existing and emerging commercial technologies. 

Editor’s note: This article was edited after publication.

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