Ro Khanna says outdated IT hurt government’s COVID-19 response efforts
Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Khanna is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Nadia Lopez.

WASHINGTON D.C. — One Silicon Valley legislator said the federal government urgently needs to update its information technology systems — especially as it deals with the COVID-19 crisis.

“Two years ago, I introduced and passed the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act to modernize federal websites and digitize government processes,” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Fremont, told San José Spotlight. “Yesterday’s hearing made it clear that we can’t afford to wait another day. Our outdated systems create cyber security risks and prevent people from receiving federal benefits, including stimulus checks. They need to be addressed immediately.”

Khanna was referring to a hearing hosted by the Subcommittee on Government Operations to discuss information technology.

During the hearing, Chairman Gerry Connolly said the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic had exposed critical weaknesses in its legacy IT systems. The congressman explained that hundreds of thousands of small businesses were unable to submit loan applications to the Small Business Administration, and for every 10 people who successfully filed for unemployment, another three to four were unable to submit their claims online.

He said reports also indicate that 21 million people have yet to receive their Cares Act stimulus payments because the Internal Revenue Service could not locate accurate direct deposit information.

The subcommittee heard from four witnesses, including Gordon Bitko, the senior vice president of the Policy Information Technology Industry Council, and Matthew Cornelius, the executive director of the Alliance for Digital Innovation.

Bitko told lawmakers that many agencies are still using systems that were designed and built decades ago. He said the U.S. public sector needs to leverage private sector innovation by developing policies that allow government agencies to use commercial products and practices more easily.

As a former chief information officer for the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Bitko recalled that the FBI collected mass amounts of data during its investigations into the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting.

“The FBI’s systems struggled to ingest, process, and analyze information at this scale, and link it to other data in other systems. In extraordinary circumstances, such as those two incidents, the FBI is able to surge hundreds of people to review the evidence and case information, but doing that on a more routine basis is just not practical,” he said. “…It is clear that the FBI’s and every federal agency’s ability to accomplish its mission is inextricably linked to a technology infrastructure with the ability to manage and analyze data at speed and scale.”

Cornelius told the lawmakers that IT modernization would save money, enhance cyber security and allow the government to competently provide services to its citizens. Among other recommendations, he said ADI — a nonprofit comprised of nearly two dozen commercial technology companies that focuses on empowering the public sector — advised Congress to overhaul outdated federal IT laws and urge agencies to prioritize training the federal workforce on new technology and digital tools.

Cornelius also referenced one of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee’s recent reports showing that several agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, were dealing better with coronavirus-related disruptions because they had already enhanced their telework capabilities and invested in cloud computing.

Khanna asked the witnesses about the role they saw the Centers of Excellence playing in speeding up IT modernization throughout the federal government. The Centers of Excellence, which were implemented by the U.S. General Services Administration in 2017, are a White House initiative to help accelerate IT development in the executive branch.

“I think to the extent that we can make it open and able for new ideas and new technical talent to come into the government to help either individual agencies internally or agencies sort of across the enterprise buy and use commercial technology to achieve mission outcomes, I think that should be celebrated,” Cornelius said.

Bitko told Khanna that it could potentially create challenges.

“If one agency delivers a service or a Center of Excellence delivers a service, as long as FISMA (Federal Information Security Management Act) is making it the responsibility of another agency’s CIO or another agency’s senior leadership to accept risks, they are unlikely to feel comfortable just accepting the work of the Center of Excellence and they’re going to end up redoing a lot of it themselves,” he said.

As the hearing concluded, Connolly explained that Congress has worked to make it easier for Americans to receive assistance by changing eligibility requirements, simplifying application processes and increasing funding to various agencies. But he said one important matter had clearly needed more discussion.

“One of the questions that did not get asked often enough, quite frankly, in putting together the Cares Act, or the Heroes Act for that matter, is what’s the capacity of the recipient agency to be able to do this,” he said.”…We need to pay more attention to both the federal recipients of federal money and the state recipients if we’re concerned about efficacy and making sure that we’re minimizing the pain out there that we are trying to address.”

Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.

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