IT Challenges for the Next President

As we kick off a new year and a new presidency — President-elect Barack Obama officially takes office Jan. 20 — we undoubtedly face new challenges. These challenges come in all shapes and sizes, from dealing with the financial crisis to ensuring an effective transition to digital TV. Yet, despite their diverse nature, many of these issues have one thing in common: information technology.

In November, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) created lists of the most important issues facing the U.S. government in 2009, divided into categories such as urgent national matters, agency-specific concerns and cost-cutting initiatives. Not only does technology play a prominent role in each area, but the GAO cited IT problems surrounding the 2010 Census as one of the 13 most pressing issues requiring the immediate attention of the next president.

“Many of the urgent policy concerns identified here are critical and time-sensitive and require prioritized federal action,” the GAO says. “[They] must be dealt with immediately.”

Clearly, IT has made its mark on life today, changing not only the daily operation of the U.S. government, but also its priorities. Let’s take a look at the technology challenges the GAO has outlined for the Obama administration.

2010 U.S. Census

What kinds of IT problems could merit presidential attention? It turns out the U.S. Census Bureau was planning to use handheld computers to help verify addresses, gather map information and count households for the upcoming decennial survey, according to a Nextgov.com article.

However, device malfunctions and an inflated budget — up an estimated $3.5 billion from a few years ago — have raised doubts about the project, the article states. With the deadline to begin the Census right around the corner, the government must come up with a viable solution. This is why it made the list of the 13 most urgent issues.

Strategic Goals

The many initiatives of the GAO can be grouped into four categories, which represent the four main strategic goals of the organization, according to the GAO Web site. IT is fundamentally tied to many of these initiatives and therefore is crucial to the success of the governmental agency.

For example, the first strategic goal outlined by the GAO is to “to address current and emerging challenges to the well-being and financial security of the American people.” One initiative in this category involves improving the capabilities of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to manage data, performance measures and other metrics in light of the fast-changing telecommunications industry. Another initiative in this category is to effectively publicize and manage the nationwide transition from analog to digital television. Clearly, technology is a big part of both of these.

Another GAO initiative, grouped under the second stated strategic goal, “to respond to changing security threats and the challenges of global interdependence,” is to create a national security framework to address “21st-century challenges.” A lot of this involves the enhancement of collaboration and efficiency, which often fall under the IT umbrella.

Agency-Specific Concerns

The GAO Web site also highlights 28 main challenges that individual government agencies face. According to Nextgov.com, “information technology issues were prominent in numerous instances, including agencies’ problems in maintaining and modernizing IT networks.”

The article went on to highlight several of these agency-specific challenges. “GAO said the Veterans Affairs Department has had trouble ‘controlling its IT equipment and managing its IT resources,’” the article reports.

“The audit agency also cited the Transportation Department’s ability to manage the complexity of the Federal Aviation Administration’s new satellite-based NextGen air traffic control system, and said the National Archives and Records Administration has had problems developing a system to store presidential and federal electronic records.”

Management Issues

A special page on the GAO Web site outlines the management-related technology challenges facing the government in 2009.

“The federal government relies on information management systems and networks to help carry out vital missions and public services, but its management and use of information and technology are not always effective,” the site states. “Improvements are necessary to ensure that taxpayer money is not ill-spent and vital government missions are not compromised.”

The Web site then highlights five reports released by the GAO this year that address key IT challenges, including “Information Technology: Agencies Need to Establish Comprehensive Policies to Address Changes to Projects’ Cost, Schedule, and Performance Goals;” “Information Security: Progress Reported, but Weaknesses at Federal Agencies Persist;” and “DOD Business Systems Modernization: Progress in Establishing Corporate Management Controls Needs to Be Replicated Within Military Departments.”

Cost-Cutting Initiatives

“A major challenge for the federal government is managing its massive investment in information technology (IT) — currently more than $70 billion annually,” the GAO states.

For this reason, several main areas of government focus in the coming year will include “effectively managing major modernization programs,” “ensuring that executives are accountable for IT investments” and “ensuring that computer systems and information have adequate security and privacy protections,” the GAO states.

So what does all this mean? The main takeaway can be summed up simply: We — and the next administration — have our work cut out for us. 

– Agatha Gilmore, agilmore@certmag.com

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