Once again, Congress has passed federal IT legislation on the back of a national defense spending bill.

Wrapped into the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act passed by the Senate Sept. 18 is a version of the House Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act, which requires federal agencies to upgrade their IT systems for efficiency and cost savings, as well as security.

The last major IT reform bill — the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) — passed in 2014 as part of that year’s defense authorization, as well.

The MGT Act is the final version of a bill that has taken many forms, beginning with a call from then-President Obama to modernize the government’s technology using a $3.1 billion central fund. While the bill includes the fund, it does not include a dollar amount. Instead, the main funding mechanism in the bill is agencies own budgets, portions of which will be diverted toward working capital funds dedicated to modernization efforts.

“The amount of money that our federal government spends on antiquated technology is mindboggling,” Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, who sponsored the House version of the bill, said Monday. “Outdated technology policies and poor cybersecurity hygiene have riddled government agencies for decades, leaving our digital information vulnerable to hacks and costing taxpayers billions.”

The working capital funds will enable agencies to set aside funding for four priority goals:

The central Technology Modernization Fund will be administered by GSA Technology Transformation Service Commissioner Rob Cook, with additional oversight from a to-be-created Technology Modernization Board.

  • Improve, retire or replace existing information technology systems to enhance cybersecurity and to improve efficiency and effectiveness;
  • Transition legacy information technology systems to cloud computing and other innovative platforms and technologies;
  • Assist and support efforts to provide adequate, risk-based and cost-effective information technology capabilities that address evolving threats to information security; and
  • Reimburse amounts transferred to the agency from the Technology Modernization Fund (established under this bill), with the approval of such agency’s Chief Information Officer.

While the MGT Act is focused on civilian agencies, aging IT systems pose a serious risk to national security, making the amendment a surprisingly good fit for a defense bill.

“This major legislation to modernize the federal government’s grossly outdated IT systems will strengthen our national security and save taxpayers millions,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who co-sponsored the NDAA amendment along with Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan.

Udall pointed out that some 75 percent of the government’s $80 billion IT budget is spent maintaining legacy systems.

“With the MGT Act’s flexible funding options, we can break that cycle and bring the federal government into the modern era — tackling dangerous cyber vulnerabilities and protecting the American people from increasingly severe cyberattacks, and empowering agencies to move forward with long-overdue projects to streamline how the federal government operates,” he said.

This year’s NDAA also included a provision on open government, the Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act, which requires agencies to publish open data in machine-readable formats.

“By requiring all federal agencies to publish their information in open, machine-readable formats, this reform will bring about greater efficiency within government and unprecedented transparency outside government,” said Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Coalition.

The NDAA — with the MGT and OPEN amendments — now heads to conference to be reconciled with the House bill passed in July.

Aaron Boyd is an awarding-winning journalist currently serving as editor of Federal Times — a Washington, D.C. institution covering federal workforce and contracting for more than 50 years — and Fifth Domain — a news and information hub focused on cybersecurity and cyberwar from a civilian, military and international perspective.

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