As any CIO in the U.S. government will tell you, the information infrastructure they are responsible for managing is outdated, inefficient, and not as secure as it needs to be, costing taxpayers far more than it should. A 2017 report from the Technology CEO Council estimates that modernizing federal IT could potentially save as much as $1 trillion in the federal budget over 10 years. Seizing the opportunity to save money while vastly improving online government services, the new administration in Washington has launched an ambitious new initiative: the American Technology Council, "to lead a sweeping transformation of the federal government’s technology."
With this goal in mind, I was one of 18 CEOs from the IT industry invited to the White House last week to meet with the president, members of his Cabinet, and other federal officials to share ideas on how to improve federal IT. All of us want government websites and digital services to work better for our citizens and taxpayers. So, collectively, we went to Washington ready to help where needed.
Raising the current state of IT at the federal level requires wholesale improvement and investments rather than incremental changes. Today, federal CIOs are forced to rely on obsolete technologies that are far more expensive to keep running than switching to newer alternatives. Cloud adoption lags private sector trends by years. Information sharing across agency boundaries is cumbersome, especially for cybersecurity, the most urgent and critical priority for federal IT.
Asked for our advice on what could and should be done, we discussed steps the federal government should take to detect cyber threats sooner and respond more quickly, in more effective ways. Cybersecurity is a growing area of Akamai’s business, one where IT organizations seek expert help repeatedly. Solutions that work for private companies can also work for federal agencies, specifically:
- Mandating widespread adoption of default ubiquitous strong encryption for all government communications
- Improving identity management, including requiring multi-factor authentication for access to all networks, with a near-term goal of eliminating password-based authentication entirely
- Protecting federal data through role- and policy-based access controls
- Encouraging "security by design" through systems analysis methodologies like STPA-Sec
- Enabling and encouraging rapid dissemination of information on cyber threats and attacks in near real time
Federal CIOs must be given a green light to replace outdated systems with newer technologies that can save money and enable the government to provide better digital services, more securely, to its users. Modernizing federal IT means helping them overcome barriers unique to the way government works — obstacles that their counterparts in the private sector don’t have to contend with: slow, heavy, and ineffective certification processes that make it impossible for the government to use the latest cyber defenses in a timely manner; burdensome procurement processes that make it very difficult for the government to work with smaller or younger companies with innovative solutions; and challenges acquiring and developing enough talent and technical know-how to lead the necessary changes.
A strong labor market makes it harder for government to compete with private employers for the skills needed to run IT effectively. At our White House summit, we spent considerable time discussing how to train more people to fill a talent pipeline that risks running dry. There are some 113,000 federal workers in IT-related roles today. Apparently, only 10% of them are under the age of 35. A much larger percentage are Baby Boomers preparing to retire.
One solution here is for the government to offer more scholarships in exchange for government service — paying for the education and training of young people who agree to dedicate a portion of their careers in IT to government work. This would also help to diversify the IT talent pool in the United States.
Encouragingly, White House officials at this meeting sounded more understanding of why our industry needs the H-1B visa program to help relieve the shortage of technical skills. At Akamai, 80% of our current H-1B visa holders have master’s degrees or PhDs in technical fields. Many are graduates of American higher education who remain in the United States and contribute their brainpower to the growth of American companies.
In spite of daunting challenges, the federal government can learn from best practices in the IT industry. As senior White House advisor Jared Kushner summarized the potential of this effort, "Together, we will unleash the creativity of the private sector to provide citizen services in a way that has never happened before. We will foster a new set of startups focused on gov-tech and be the global leader in the field making government more transparent and responsive to citizens’ needs."
The launch of this new American Technology Council is a start. Like all ambitious beginnings, what matters most will be the follow-through. Making our government’s IT work better for all deserves our full support. We at Akamai are willing to help.
Andy Ellis, Carter Wilkie, and Laura Van Wazer of Akamai contributed to this post.