Difficulty in upgrading legacy federal IT systems

There is currently an abundance of legacy IT systems across the federal government. The 2015 High Risk Report from the Government Accountability Office identified the management of IT acquisitions and operations as a high-risk area, and it noted that many of the failed projects were devoted to upgrading existing systems, or establishing long-needed IT infrastructure, such as the initiative to digitize Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs health records and modernizing the Farm Services Administration.

Legacy systems are a big problem for the government: Approximately three-quarters of the $80 billion spent on federal IT programs was spent on maintaining and ensuring compatibility for legacy IT systems, according to the High Risk Report. Upgrading and modernizing legacy IT systems needs to be a big priority for federal agencies.

Problems at the FSA

"Over the 11 years of the program's operation, it failed to deliver on 80 percent of its planned functionality."

The Department of Agriculture effort to modernize the Farm Service Agency many programs – called Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems, or MIDAS – was deemed a failure by the GAO because of a critical inability to manage the program: over the 11 years of the program's operation, it failed to deliver on 80 percent of its planned functionality while almost doubling the initial cost estimate of $330 million.

The GAO reported that it was plagued by massive cost issues and delays, and the system that was delivered performed poorly and ineffectively. Only two of the 18 principles recommended by the GAO for proper IT management were fully implemented. As features were jettisoned and the due date crept ever further, the MIDAS program was halted.

Efforts to modernize health records impeded
Meanwhile, the effort to digitize DOD and VA health records has been costly and its failures have been heavily publicized, with massive backlogs and long delays for veterans to get medical care. That said, it's no simple task: The agencies are the two of the largest healthcare providers in the nation, according to the GAO, serving more than 16 million American veterans and service members, but trying to get the two agencies to interoperate their healthcare informatics is a Herculean task that hasn't been fully completed in the 15 years since the project first started.

In 2013 the two departments abandoned building a shared system and instead developing separate ones to digitize healthcare records, but as the GAO noted, there is certainly some concern about the realization of the project. But there has been some recent hope. FedScoop reported on DOD and VA IT representatives – as well as staff from their joint Interoperability Program Office – making a recent appearance before Congress, showing off the results of the Joint Legacy Viewer, which is designed to transfer DOD health records to the VA.

"There is as yet, no timeline for when the project will be finished."

However, this demonstration happened months after the October 1 deadline for interoperability between the health record systems, and the JLV doesn't offer the full interoperability. The GAO is concerned specifically about the lack of clear goals, objectives, and deadlines for the project. There is as of yet, no timeline for when the project will be finished.

Oversight concerned about aging NASA
Federal Computer Week reported that members of the House Oversight Committee have sent a letter to NASA asking them about the status of its legacy systems. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chair of the Oversight Committee and the one who penned the letter, cited the cost of legacy IT systems used by the government as his largest issue during a talk reported on by FCW.

"Issues using legacy systems caused a 20-month, $80 million dollar delay."

It's a legitimate concern for the agency, as many of its systems were built in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, a GAO report found that issues using legacy systems with the Space Launch System caused delays forecasted at 20 months and at a cost of $80 million dollars.

Outdated IT systems should be one of the biggest concerns for agency heads – it costs millions of dollars and months of time fixing and updating those systems. In order to modernize IT systems and keep up with the frantic pace of technological progress, agencies should partner with private organizations to help improve their IT service management and streamline operations.