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How Legacy System Modernization Changes the Game for Gov IT Teams: Real World Perspective from the Former CIO of the U.S. Air Force

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As digitization continues to become essential in our society, government agencies are rushing to catch up with IT modernization. While improving citizen experience has been seen as a main driver of modernization within the public sector, one factor that is seen as more murky has been whether these efforts drive cost savings. This is due to the complexity of these efforts, past legacy system modernization failures, and how the overall cost of these initiatives were traditionally viewed. While achieving cost optimization through modernization can have its challenges, the costs of not modernizing are high enough that the ROI on these efforts, when executed properly, is substantial. For government agencies, this can be demonstrated by focusing on three key components: the cost of talent, ability to successfully meet agency goals, and operational efficacy.

 The cost of talent to maintain legacy applications only continues to increase

As government IT teams continue to try and attract upcoming talent, they are currently limited in their efforts due to their dependence on legacy systems as well as challenges ensuring adequate compensation when compared to the private sector. While software languages like ALGOL, COBOL, FORTRAN, and ADA were innovative during their time, they are no longer the languages of modern coding. Though many legacy systems within the US government continue to operate on these outdated programming languages, the majority of the pool of new talent wants to develop skills in modern languages and technologies. Consequently, instead of being able to attract upcoming talent, agencies can be forced into situations where they must contract with specialized firms that have employees with experience in old software languages. Even today, one Air Force organization must contract with a firm of older employees as they are some of the only ones that are competent with a software language developed over 60 years ago! Furthermore, the lack of modernization is currently costing the agency millions of dollars per year due to maintenance on a legacy system that has only a few hundred thousand lines of code. Over time, the inefficient allocation of funding as well as the dwindling pool of available talent to support these systems will create an unsustainable situation that will compromise agencies, if legacy system modernization is not brought into the picture. 

Legacy system limitations can result in an inability to effectively meet agency goals 

Modernization efforts can also improve the core citizen services these agencies are required to provide. The impact and importance of the responsibilities of government agencies cannot be overemphasized, even within agencies and systems that aren’t commonly thought of. 

For example, the Military Times recently reported that due to errors in the Army’s outdated personnel database and technology, there may be about 1,000 misspelled names on the Korean War Wall of Remembrance. This error was caused by the inability of the original system to accommodate hyphens and special characters. The names on the Wall of Remembrance were originally sourced from the Total Army Personnel database, which served as the Army’s master personnel database from the 1980s until 2022. The database was written in COBOL, a programming language developed by the military beginning in 1959. However, COBOL mimicked punch cards and could not handle special characters within the name field creating the current issue. As a result, the wall that thousands of people pass by every day to remember and honor past veterans, has misstated the names of many of those very same soldiers. Additionally, since the error was based on special characters and hyphens, the mistakes disproportionately affect underrepresented minorities such as Latinos and Native Americans. While the Army has recognized this problem and is in the process of fixing this issue, the Military Times reported that the antiquated knowledge of COBOL has forced the Army to contract out the job for a sizable $557M. Conversely, a stronger modernization initiative could have saved this money, allowing the Army to allocate this spending towards other important issues as well as being able to avoid the error in the first place. 

Another recent example can be seen with the Maui natural disaster and the resulting fallout. After the incident, unemployment claims in Maui skyrocketed bringing concerns that the state department labor and industrial relations’ legacy system would soon be overloaded due to its reliance on outdated workflows. For example in order to backdate a claim or to determine if disaster relief should be included in weekly earnings, a person has to conduct an in-person phone call. However, a sizable amount of the elderly population have language barriers which force translators to constantly conduct three person phone calls before moving on to the next person. This quickly gets overwhelming when the claims spike like with the Maui fire or during COVID 19. While the state is planning to address this issue by moving to a modernized platform that services people with limited English, the delay in implementing this platform has already affected a portion of the population during one of its most trying times. 

Reduced operational efficacy has been a result of legacy workflows and organizational silos 

Government agencies today are dealing with operational challenges from past policies and technologies. 

For example, there are many instances where standardized software modules could have been reused, rather than newly created and paid for hundreds of times in different languages. The Air Force had several hundred logistics applications, and many had the same ‘form-fill, front end’ data e.g., name of organization, part number, shipping address, price per part, etc. Yet each application, because they were developed separately and likely through proprietary contracts, never reused the similar software functionality and thus were purchased separately.  Modernization efforts can reduce this waste of resources by identifying the business rules that are similar between applications and thus can be reused by others.

In addition, an agency’s ability to operate is heavily determined by the cybersecurity standards it maintains. Generally, code written in older languages is often seen as a blind spot susceptible to cyber attacks. Since current IT talent are less familiar with these older languages, they are less likely to be able to assess and provide adequate protection to these older lines of code. This allows hackers to exploit these vulnerabilities, Modern day cyber attacks can be exhaustive and completely disrupt the overall operation of the agency, creating both time and costs to the organization. Additionally, as cyber attacks become more sophisticated, speed becomes of the utmost importance when it comes to identifying and fixing weak points. By modernizing systems to newer languages and technologies, government IT teams can address these blind spots and analyze software systems in a more comprehensive manner as available talent will be better able to understand the application. That can often be the difference between maintaining operations as normal or using significant resources and budget to address a serious cyberattack.

Conclusion

While application modernization addresses many government agency concerns, its associated cost optimizations related to labor, ability to meet agency goals, and operational efficacy have been understated. With the true costs of legacy systems rising due to labor shortages, system flaws and duplication, and cybersecurity blind spots, modernization initiatives can help the government address long term issues while allocating resources more effectively. 

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