MITRE Corp.’s Center for Data-Driven Policy is urging Congress and the Biden administration to embark on a new campaign to speed the migration of Federal agencies away from legacy IT technologies, and to hold government’s feet to the fire on that effort by providing transparent ways to track progress.

In a March 29 report entitled Ten Recommendations to Modernize Archaic and Insecure Legacy Applications, the MITRE policy center headed by former Government Accountability Office Director of IT Issues Dave Powner offered up a few key steps for each of Congress, the Biden administration, Federal agencies, and industry to take to speed the transition away from legacy IT.

“Without a modern 21st century digital government, Federal agencies cannot fully harness the power of technology to advance their missions and improve citizens’ experience with the Federal government,” the report says. “We offer these recommendations to OMB, Congress, Federal agencies, and industry – who all play a critical role in prioritizing and modernizing our mission critical systems.”

Asks for Congress

For Congress, the to-do list features passing legislation similar to the Legacy IT Reduction Act offered last year by Sens. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and John Cornyn, R-Texas.

That bill – which failed to make it out of the Senate and did not have a companion measure in the House – aimed to reduce the Federal government’s reliance on outdated and obsolete IT by requiring agency officials to inventory “legacy” IT systems and come up with plans to modernize systems. The bill tasked the Office of Management and Budget to assist in that effort, but notably did not propose any dedicated funding for the IT replacement effort.

The report also calls on Congress to revamp the FITARA Scorecard issued by the House Oversight and Accountability Committee to include a grading category for IT modernization planning and delivery, among other changes.

Asks for OMB

The report calls on OMB to issue guidance to agencies requiring them to accomplish the Senate bill’s aims – namely to “develop a prioritized inventory of legacy systems and an IT modernization plan.”

Those plans, the report says, should follow criteria including “systems no longer supported, systems with known cybersecurity vulnerabilities, cost savings, and significant improvements to mission.”

“The modernization plan should sequence acquisitions based on this criteria, and should address items such as network infrastructure, cloud migration, and cybersecurity,” the report says. “The plan should also include a decommissioning schedule that has clear milestones for retiring legacy systems.”

In addition, the report says OMB should “ensure that there is a reporting/transparency mechanism to monitor progress and ensure accountability. This mechanism should leverage the IT Dashboard and clearly show progress, in terms of acquisitions and retirements, against the modernization plan.”

The report also suggest OMB establish a program under the Federal CIO that includes partnerships with  “key technology industry providers, so that agencies which are not making enough progress on converting their legacy applications can seek assistance.”

“This program should provide expertise on converting/re-engineering/redesigning older systems based on technologies from the previous century to newer current century technologies in a smooth non-disruptive manner that supports continuity of operations for Federal agencies’ mission critical processing and data management capabilities,” the report says.

Asks for Agencies

The report says agencies need to implement the called-for legislation and OMB guidance “by developing prioritized inventories, modernization plans, and budgets to support these plans,” and reporting progress on the IT Dashboard including details on “updates to inventories and plans, acquisitions delivered, cloud offerings deployed, and legacy systems that are decommissioned.”

Agencies also need to harness more advanced technology to help in the effort, the report says. It suggests that agencies partner with industry, national laboratories, and federally funded research outfits like MITRE “to find ways to apply artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotic process automation, and big data processing to extract business rules and data processing logic from legacy IT platforms like mainframes with assembly or COBOL languages.”

“This logic has been developed over the last few decades in response to legislation, policy, fraud patterns, and data quality issues,” the report says, adding, “this approach is similar to what DARPA, NSF, and other R&D agencies have used to identify creative ways to solve existing technology obstacles.”

Asks for Industry

Finally, the report says that industry “needs to be a collaborative partner working closely with Federal agencies on their IT modernization plans and execution against those plans,” and that industry “should bring innovative approaches to create new ways of transitioning systems and software created during the last century to the current industry prominent hardware and software platforms.”

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