The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Government can’t do its job right if it won’t embrace modern technology

Upgrading an out-of-date architecture will make our government more productive and more secure.

The Office of Personnel Management building in Washington. (Shawn Thew/European Pressphoto Agency)

In June, news broke that hackers accessed the personal data of 4.2 million federal workers in one of the most damaging cybersecurity attacks in U.S. government history. As the story unfolded, the Office of Personnel Management made it clear that the breach was much farther reaching, compromising the sensitive personal information of as many as 18 million federal workers. It ultimately cost OPM Director Katherine Archuleta her job.

Anyone paying attention to the state of government technology shouldn’t have been shocked. Archuleta, in testimony before Congress, said her agency had cybersecurity vulnerabilities that were decades in the making. As Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), former chairman of a congressional committee to reform IT spending in Washington, pointed out, “technology is moving forward, but the government is falling behind.”* Decades-old, obsolete technology doesn’t just lead to heightened security risks and compromised data. It slows government productivity, inhibits collaboration between agencies and degrades the level of service government can deliver to citizens.

Thankfully, we can do something about it.

Instead of patching issues incrementally on a fundamentally broken architecture, we need a wholesale move to a more modern IT environment. At my company, Box, we’re seeing some early examples of this shift, with government agencies like the Justice Department moving to our cloud platform, but there’s a much greater opportunity for the government to work with startups to drive new innovation, create improved experiences for citizens and government employees, and save taxpayers billions.

Our government was once known for utilizing cutting-edge technology. It was one of the first customers and users of mainframes, relational databases and the Internet. But today, it simply can’t keep up with the feverish rate of innovation coming out of the tech sector, with new devices, software and cloud services being released daily.

One reason is that IT procurement processes in government tend to be slow, bureaucratic and notorious for favoring entrenched solutions, which leads to investing in technology that’s over-priced, overly-complex and often obsolete before it’s ever deployed. The situation has become so bad that even President Obama weighed in, saying, “The federal government does a lot of things really well, but one of the things it does not do well is information technology procurement.”

And as Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) explains, the federal government “should be seeking out the best value for the taxpayer dollar, not the company that can best navigate thousands of pages of procurement regulations.”

The current approach to procurement keeps government from adopting the latest technology that’s available, frequently missing out on innovation already being produced for private sector corporations and consumers.

The agencies that are challenging this status quo have reaped major benefits. The General Services Administration dropped its IT costs by millions when it migrated to Google Apps, and the Agriculture Department consolidated 21 on-premise e-mail systems into one. For the past several years, the Defense Department has undergone a major initiative to consolidate its data centers. If every agency took this kind of action, we would see a dramatic reduction in government IT spending, coupled with a massive increase in productivity.

And as for security, legacy software and infrastructure are the biggest weaknesses to protecting information. Attackers know how to exploit archaic technology — software that was designed in an era of less emphasis on security risk — and processes riddled with vulnerabilities. By contrast, today’s  state-of-the-art software architectures promote security from the ground up, encrypting data by default, delivering multi-factor authentication and supporting advanced forms of threat prevention.

But we can’t stop at just leveraging newer technology; we must also evolve the overall tech culture in government. Many of the most important government tech projects — from the debacle to the Veterans Administration’s failed attempt at implementing an electronic health record system — exhibit the worst government tendencies: They’re slow, rigid and overly bureaucratized. This isn’t how the private sector tackles innovation in 2015, and it shouldn’t be how the government does it either. Across government, we need smaller, more agile teams, capable of meeting much shorter time-frames (weeks, not years) to deliver vastly more output, keep projects using leading-edge technologies and allow for failures to be recognized far sooner.

If there was a bright spot in the aftermath of, it’s that the administration launched the U.S. Digital Service to tackle this systemic problem head on. Charged with driving digital proficiency in some of the most vital areas of government, the new entity takes best practices that drive successful startups and applies them to federal government challenges. 18F, a tandem effort, aims to cultivate more user-centric digital services in all areas of government at the start of new projects, before intractable problems arise.

With better procurement, outside-in thinking, a next-generation wave of technology vendors and today’s approach to product management and delivery, the federal government will be well on its way to a modern technology environment.

Through better cloud or mobile technologies that connect individuals in disparate organizations and agencies, collaboration on mission critical projects will be sped up dramatically. With lower friction to accessing needed information, or sharing between departments, we’ll see gains in government productivity. Less time is wasted in making decisions, projects move along faster and critical ideas, tasks or data can be shared more easily. (Full disclosure: Box, my company, stands to benefit from these trends, as we have with private-sector customers.)

And through newer, digitally-driven experiences, the way that citizens interact with the products and services of the government will change materially. Whether it’s evolving how we file tax returns, opening up government-controlled data for developers and startups to interact with or fostering increased transparency around how our key federal functions operate, there are plenty of ways to make the government better at what it does by pushing it into the digital age.

* Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Sen. Tom Udall’s party affiliation and his position with a congressional committee to reform IT spending in Washington.