Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. – one of the prime movers behind congressional approval of $1 billion of new funding for the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) earlier this year –emphasized the crucial impact that money will have on modernizing Federal agency networks and improving government cybersecurity and citizen service in keynote remarks at MeriTalk’s TMF Forward virtual event on Dec. 16.

The Virginia congressman, who is instrumental in creating the semi-annual FITARA Scorecard that rates Federal agencies on progress on numerous IT-related fronts, appealed for additional funding for TMF as a way for Federal agencies to improve services during the lingering coronavirus pandemic, and to prepare for more challenges down the road.

“The coronavirus pandemic demonstrated these investments are desperately needed, and they work,” he said. “The bottom line is IT is policy, and policy is IT. If Federal IT is outdated and unsecure, the delivery of government services and the policies behind them will be expensive and inefficient, vulnerable to cyberattacks, and maybe won’t work at all.”

“If we invest in IT, we can build systems and technology for the 21st century, allowing the public to receive relief when they need it, businesses support when they need it, and the economy to grow,” Rep. Connolly said.

“So it’s vital we continue to invest in the Technology Modernization Fund, along with other important initiatives to accelerate the modernization of government IT,” he stressed.

Mounting Challenges 

Rep. Connolly pointed to the Federal government’s success in leveraging IT to deliver vital services to citizens during the coronavirus pandemic, but also warned that the pandemic continues to present challenges that require the government to squeeze even greater benefits from technology as the public health crisis drags on.

“Most recently, the omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus has generated significant concern about the country’s path forward,” the congressman said. While he applauded the Biden administration for requiring vaccinations for Federal employees and making sure the public has access to booster shots, he said that “the ongoing nature of the pandemic has required individuals and small businesses to continue to seek government relief.”

The consequences of underperformance by some Federal IT systems, he said, have become more evident during the pandemic in the form of citizens and businesses being unable to access benefits from both the Federal and state governments.

Despite congressional action to provide trillions in relief through the 2020 CARES Act and the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, “many individuals and small businesses were denied timely support and assistance because of severely deficient IT infrastructure, both at the Federal and state levels,” he said.

“Call centers were overwhelmed and websites crashed,” he continued. “Amidst the chaos, fraudsters were able to acquire government funds that they did not qualify for or deserve. Billions of dollars … unfortunately were wasted as a result.”

“Deficient IT left sensitive government systems and data vulnerable to cyberattacks,” Rep. Connolly said. “During the pandemic, criminals took advantage to overwhelm public IT systems ill-prepared to deliver vital public services securely at the scale we required.”

Modernization Urgency

“By modernizing IT infrastructure, we can deliver services to the public that are intuitive, accessible, and responsive to customer needs,” he said. “And we can ensure that private data stays private, and that taxpayer dollars are used wisely and effectively.”

“It’s time we made real investment in IT modernization, transitioning systems off legacy code bases and moving to the cloud,” he said. “These investments will pay enormous dividends in the long run and save taxpayer dollars and grow public trust in the government.”

“We’ve seen the consequences of lagging investment in IT firsthand during the pandemic, and we must not let those lessons go unheeded,” he said. “We must be prepared for the next national emergency even after the pandemic hopefully subsides.”

In his role as chairman of the House Government Operations Subcommittee, Rep. Connolly said he is prioritizing efforts “to modernize government IT so the public can access critical services more efficiently, accurately and securely,” including through funding provided by the TMF.

The fund, he said, “aims to reimagine and transform the way agencies use technology to deliver on their mission and services to the American public effectively … and helps agencies kickstart vital IT modernization efforts that the annual appropriations process does not offer.”

Growing Funding Demand 

Rep. Connolly recalled testimony from Federal CIO Clare Martorana in July that the TMF Board had received about $2 billion worth of funding bids from Federal agencies after Congress appropriated $1 billion of new money to the fund, and said he thought that figure has grown since then.

“Six months later, put simply, the demand for IT modernization funds within the Federal government clearly outstrips the supply,” he said. “Federal agencies want to modernize their systems and provide better experiences to their customers securely, but they need support to do so.”

Rep. Connolly noted the possibility of another $250 million infusion for TMF through an amendment he crafted for the House version of the pending Build Back Better Act, and said he hoped the Senate will retain that funding – and perhaps increase the total – as it works on its version of the legislation.

“With this additional funding, TMF will be able to support more agency IT projects, moving from outdated, expensive IT legacy systems to scalable, relatively affordable cloud-based systems for the 21st century,” he said. Award 

The congressman ticked through a list of already-approved TMF-funded projects, giving particular attention to the fund’s recent award to the General Services Administration for work on its authentication and identity proofing services that won $187 million in funding out the $311 million of TMF awards announced in September. The additional work on will support the “widespread adoption of secure authentication for millions of users” that aims to improve the security of government systems.

“Identification verification technologies like ensure that the individual interacting with the government is who he or she says they are,” he said, adding, “by verifying the individual’s identity, the government can be sure it is providing data and dollars to the right person.” Rep. Connolly said that in Fiscal Year 2020, Federal agencies identified $205 billion of improper payments to individuals and companies.

“It is vital,” he said, that government support “really goes to the right people, in the right amount, at the right time. As our lives continue to go digital, it’s become more difficult for the government to verify the identity and eligibility of individuals, businesses, and nonprofits seeking government relief. If we fail to implement appropriate precautions, fraudsters will more easily steal identities and acquire undeserved government benefits.”

FITARA Look-Ahead

Rep. Connolly said Congress also needs to continue providing “robust oversight” of how agencies use TMF funding to undertake IT modernization efforts, and looked forward to the release by the House Oversight and Reform Committee in early January of the 13th edition of its FITARA Scorecard that rates Federal agency IT efforts in several categories.

The scorecard, he said, “holds agencies accountable in IT modernization efforts by grading them on key related provisions like data center consolidation, cybersecurity, and CIO reporting structures. As IT and the expectations we place on agencies evolve, so does the scorecard.”

He said the 12th edition of the scorecard issued earlier this year showed “continued progress” by agencies in many grading categories. “These improvements represent concrete progress in Federal service delivery, ensuring the public receives government relief quickly and accurately. Like many of the projects funded by the TMF, our oversight efforts have saved taxpayer dollars” through “IT investments baked into the policymaking decision process.”

The Government Operations Subcommittee, which performs much of the work on the FITARA Scorecards, “is continuing to identify opportunities to modernize the scorecard to ensure that metrics are meaningfully reflecting the state of Federal IT,” he said, adding, “our work is not done.”

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.