Technology leaders in Congress and industry groups with a stake in Federal IT both applauded the Biden administration’s move today to relax Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) payback requirements in order to quickly put $1 billion of new funding to work to shore up agency cyber defenses and upgrade critical systems.

The change in traditional TMF reimbursement rules means that some projects are not likely to require any repayment at all – removing a big hurdle for agencies to apply for project funding. And the prioritization of cybersecurity, “high-priority” systems modernization, public-facing digital systems, and cross-government services projects mean that nearly every Federal agency has a project they can choose to toss into the mix.

The TMF Board wants agencies to submit proposals through June 2 on how to use the money.

The loosening of repayment rules announced today was exactly what House and Senate lawmakers asked for in recent letters to administration officials. Leading the charge from the Senate have been Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.  Putting the pressure on from the House side are Reps. Caroline Maloney, D-N.Y., Gerry Connolly, D-Va., Katie Porter, D-Calif., Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.

“Smart IT investments are integral to the federal government’s mission and were the driving reason behind our effort to secure $1 billion for the TMF in the American Rescue Plan,” Rep. Connolly said in a statement to MeriTalk. “After enactment of the American Rescue Plan, I led a letter to OMB and GSA urging the Biden Administration to produce a strategy on how these funds will be prioritized and allocated.”

“The Administration was quick to take the opportunity to brief and engage my [Government Operations] Subcommittee on their plans, and I look forward to continuing my work with them to ensure the TMF is adequately reimbursed and agile IT modernization becomes the norm across government,” Rep. Connolly said.

“Our Federal IT systems are long overdue for significant upgrades – we’ve known that to be true for years, but this reality has been further underlined by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sen. Warner said. “Through various pandemic relief packages, we’ve seen too many examples of individuals not being able to access timely or accurate benefits for which they’re eligible, and outdated IT systems have played a role in that.”

“I’m glad to see that the administration is addressing feedback related to this TMF funding, and is committed to taking steps to ensure it can quickly and effectively help agencies address issues with security and the delivery of services to the American people,” the senator said. “I encourage the administration to be as forward-leaning as possible in working with agencies to identify and address their needs, and am looking forward to working with them as they continue these efforts.”

Industry Urges Close Cooperation, Smooth Processes

Today’s move by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and General Services Administration (GSA) also won praise from tech-sector groups. But those groups also were quick to suggest process improvements and closer engagement to get the modernization fall rolling faster.

“The new guidance is a step in the right direction … but a very short and very tentative step,” said Matthew T. Cornelius, executive director of the Alliance for Digital Innovation.

“It’s suboptimal that OMB and GSA are still relying on agencies – already overworked, still responding to SolarWinds, in the middle of budget passback – to come to them with their own project proposals,” he said. “It’s been 15 months of COVID and many months of the SolarWinds response, OMB and GSA should have some more ideas on where the best single or multi-agency projects are, and should already have a team ready to go out there and work proactively with agencies to surface and submit the right kinds of projects that the TMF Board wants to fund.”

“That said, it is nice to see the repayment flexibility in there, as well as some areas of prioritization,” Cornelius continued. “That will likely help generate some additional interest in the TMF that simply hasn’t been there for the past year and a half.” He wondered, however, about project quality and consistency, saying, “getting more submissions isn’t necessarily a good thing, if you don’t have a robust team of technologists and security experts to vet those projects or help agencies turn nascent ideas into initial project proposals. That is just a drag on the TMF Board’s precious time.”

Cornelius also called on officials including Federal CIO Clare Martorana, Acting GSA Administrator Katy Kale, and the TMF Board to devote as much time “openly and publicly engaging with agencies and the industry as possible to sell the benefits of the TMF, expand upon this very high-level update to the submission process, and have all entities who want to see this program be amazing successful (including ADI) help them better unearth and support the absolute best IT projects that can be funded by the TMF.”

“We welcome the administration’s tiered and flexible repayment approach to achieve its government IT modernization and critical cybersecurity objectives through the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF),” said Gordon Bitko, Senior Vice President of Policy, Public Sector, at the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI).

He also emphasized the importance of working closely with the private sector, saying that “industry has the expertise in innovative technologies that is needed to ensure TMF-funded projects will be truly transformative.”

“To that end, it is critical that the TMF Board prioritize collaboration with the tech sector and CIO community on project evaluation,” Bitko said. “We look forward to working with the TMF Board to leverage the most innovative commercial solutions and achieve our shared IT modernization and security goals.”

The ITI official also urged the TMF board to prioritize projects that improve the government’s ability to provide digital services to citizens “given the dramatic shift to online services during the pandemic.”

“We also recommend that it focus[es] on shared services that will reduce administrative burdens and lead times associated with security accreditations, while still prioritizing the highest standards of cybersecurity governmentwide,” Bitko said. “To ensure this approach is implemented effectively, agencies will need to have clear, upfront expectations about what level of repayment is required so they can build it into future budget requests.”

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