Management

New IT strategy could help modernize government tech

The federal government spends about three-fourths of its $80 billion information technology budget maintaining aging systems, a recent congressional report says. But a new automated software testing and implementation system is speeding up efforts to modernize software at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Mark Schwartz, chief information officer at USCIS, said Aug. 18 the agency was able to update its online employment verification system in a mere six weeks. Schwartz painted a picture of how a largely stagnant modernization effort four years in the making took off in a month and a half, producing a functioning product that improved the e-verification system whereby employers check the immigration status of new hires.

In a keynote address to the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center conference, he outlined the USCIS's use of the Dev-Ops approach to modernize its e-verify system.

"It's empowering, it gives oversight a lot of control over the project, it's extremely lean and efficient," Schwartz said. "But it also works because DevOps lets us see results immediately." Schwartz oversees USCIS's E-verify system project.

The Development Operations, or DevOps, approach to software development hinges on automated software testing and collaboration between software developers and operators as a way to make tech products available faster. Schwartz said parts of the USCIS system were incrementally broken off from the larger program and modernized, before being put back into use, seamlessly updating E-verify.

Schwartz's speech underscored a major pivot to agile software development to modernize aging and largely outdated government information technology. That approach could indicate a route to help update technology in desperate need of modernization.

In May, the Government Accountability Office released a report that found the federal government spends about 75 percent of its $80 billion tech budget on operations and maintenance. That spending has led to a $7.3 billion decline in development and modernization funding since 2010.

As the Obama administration seeks $3.1 billion from Congress to update government computer systems, Schwartz said agile development could help the government avoid future tech overhauls.

"We can take these multibillion dollar programs that take four years to write the requirements for and instead start delivering value in six weeks, and use that value delivery as a way to control the program," Schwartz said.

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