Federal IT Is A Mess And We Really Should Give A Damn

Even as IT departments in enterprises work to keep up with the demands of cloud computing and bring your own device, Federal IT shops are struggling to meet these same demands - while laboring under sometimes Byzantine rules and regulations.

It's a big problem: in 2012, the United States spent approximately $79.2 billion for government information technology services.

And Federal IT programs impact all of us, with systems like my SocialSecurity accounts, which has personally given me trouble when trying to create an account. I suspect others have many examples of government systems that do not work when we need them.

Still, with all this at stake, the government spends an unbelievable amount of money to contractors who sometimes deliver software many IT professionals would have hard time accepting.

Vivek Kundra, a former Federal CIO, speaking at Ingram Micro’s Cloud Summit, summed up the problem well last summer.

“My first day at work I was told there were $27 billion in projects years behind schedule and we were hundreds of millions of dollars over budget," Kundra told his audience.

Steven VanRoekel, the current Federal CIO, is in similar straits. And, having visited former Federal CIO Karen Evans a few times, I saw first-hand just how tough a job she had.

The problems of IT at the Federal level are compounded by budgetary restrictions that are daunting at best. For instance, most business CIOs would be surprised to learn, there is only one Federal department-level CIO, the Veterans Administration CIO who actually has budgetary authority.

It's Not All Bad

Some things have gotten better. It has been years since I heard of a government site requiring Internet Explorer. That's significant because getting a government website fixed is not an easy task; just getting the initial meetings started often took a couple of months.

Internet Explorer's former lock on web sites highlights what still may be the biggest challenge for government technology: the decades-long dominance of Microsoft.

When I picked up the remnants of Apple’s Federal team in 1995, one of the first things I had to deal with was the planned elimination of Macintoshes in favor of Windows 95 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Fortunately for Apple (and NASA), pressure from NASA Macintosh users and the efforts of our team working with the government resulted in a 1996 Office of the Inspector General report condemning the decision to eliminate Macs for the space agency.

But Microsoft and Windows still had a strong hold - eight years later I got an invitation to visit the Johnson Space Center with one of our Apple account executives, who was still trying to revive Mac sales there.

Federal computing, I have learned, is not easy to change or even examine. Transparency is a myth.

Game Changers

There are a few technologies with the potential to change the federal IT market.

These are four key technologies that could give government IT managers room to innovate and expand their services.

Heading For The Future

The recent announcement of a $617M joint enterprise licensing agreement between Microsoft and the Department of Defense gives the strong impression that not much has changed. Will the agreement offer real flexibility that will change the complaint that are Federal users are over a Microsoft barrel when it comes time to renew licensing? Time will tell.

One operating system vendor owning my desktop makes me uncomfortable. So how could one company’s hold on the United States government's desktops possibly be a good thing?

It's not just the desktop. Server architecture, email services and directory services have all been tied together in one neat bundle by Microsoft. And once you subscribe to that bundle, it is hard to get free.

Despite the media hype, I find little evidence that the government has embraced Linux servers as enthusiastically as the world in general. While the White House Web site is running on Linux servers and the Navy has subs using Linux servers for sonar, those are pretty minor in the big picture.

A few Federal agencies are moving to a Gmail-based email architecture, which is a sign of cracks in Microsoft's monopoly. GSA’s mail architecture is a notable win for Google, for instance.

The fact is, the world of Federal computing is different than the world of commercial computing, where the Microsoft monopoly is gone. Government technology has been derisively called trailing edge in recent years, and this is one of the reasons why.

Yet the government has a history of being a force that moves information technology forward. Though some would have us believe differently, the United States government did have a big role in developing the Internet.

I personally witnessed the government’s role in developing HDTV. On calls to the Naval Research Lab, I got to see some of the first HDTV broadcasts long before the technology was commercially available.

We must be aware of our government’s use of technology and be prepared to work with administrators and legislators to get Federal IT moving in the right direction again. Not just for their sake, but for all our sakes.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.