Agencies struggle to stay ahead of the curve in new era of technology

The technology that surrounds us changes constantly. New models of smartphones are always popping up. Notifications of upgrades to our computer operating systems and software come every few weeks. Security systems are revamped often to ward off cyber attacks and hackers.

And a big change is coming to the federal technology community. For the first time ever, federal agencies are expected to spend less on information technology in 2014 than the year before. Federal News Radio’s special report, A New Era in Technology, examines the sea change that will force everyone in both federal agencies and industry to think differently.

Federal News Radio surveyed nearly 900 federal employees and 50 government contractors about IT in government agencies. The survey was anonymous and all questions were optional. About 77 percent of all respondents completed the survey in its entirety.

Keeping up-to-date

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When asked about technology modernization, 60 percent of federal employees and contractors said equipment such as desktop phones, computers and mobile devices in federal agencies have changed the most over the past five years.

At the same time, however, nearly 60 percent of feds and about 50 percent of contractors said equipment at agencies is behind the curve, and a majority of feds said computers need the biggest upgrades at their agencies.

With the ever-changing technology landscape, it’s no wonder federal employees and contractors think government agencies are falling behind the curve when it comes to modernization of technology.

In addition to hardware and equipment, respondents to the survey noted their agencies do not use the latest versions or most up-to-date software.

“We are, perpetually, at least one operating system behind the rest of the universe,” one survey respondent said.

Several agencies still use Windows XP, rather than newer versions like Windows Vista, 7 or 8. Some respondents said their agencies are also using an older version of Internet Explorer.

Moving toward emerging technologies

In an effort to modernize systems and save costs, many agencies are moving away from traditional technology and toward emerging technologies.

Govini, a government market research firm, analyzed trends of six emerging technologies: big data, cloud, cybersecurity, mobile technology, health IT and energy IT.

“I think the trend is healthy in a struggling market,” said Geoff Celhar, vice president for research and analytics for Govini. “They’ve held pretty steady in the space of budget cuts. I would expect to see some growth in the next four or five years.”

But with agencies still using old hardware, a transition to these emerging technologies could prove difficult.

“There’s a lot of talk about these initiatives, how they want to focus on mobility or cloud technology, but the reality is there are a lot of complaints about old versions of equipment. I wonder how they’re going to be able to focus on these newer technologies with older tools,” Celhar said.

The learning curve

A strong majority of federal employees — more than 90 percent — said they have a desire to use more up-to-date technology. 72 percent of contractors agreed that employees at government agencies want to use more up-to-date technology.

But along with new technology comes a learning curve and the need for training.

“Training is available, but the time allotted is inadequate,” one respondent said.

In the survey, 66 percent of federal employees said they disagree that agencies do a good job of preparing and training employees to use new technology systems.

“At best, they hand it out with a brief demonstration,” one survey respondent said. “At worst, they hand you the box and expect you to figure it out.”

Dan Chenok, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government and executive vice chairman of the Industry Advisory Council, said training is an important aspect of any job.

“I’m a big believer in group project training,” he said. “Get a mix of employees together — some of whom are mentors and some of whom are learning. Have them work together on a project as a group, and then the people who are newer can learn from the people who are more experienced.”

Chenok said no one-size-fits-all approach applies to training employees.

“It’s really a question of looking at the skill set of the workforce and coming up with multiple avenues… There are multiple pathways, and a good human capital development program will take advantage of them all.”

The problem with training, however, is agencies’ ability to work training into their already thinly stretched budgets.

“Significant amounts of money have to be spent because they have to train older workers who are not used to using the latest technology,” one contractor who responded to the survey said.

Planning with a smaller budget

With the future of sequestration still uncertain, agencies must carefully scrutinize and plan their budgets for the next few fiscal years.

Survey respondents had mixed feelings about what will happen to the federal IT budget over the next five years. Among federal employees who responded, 27 percent said the budget will grow slowly, while 25 percent said it will remain flat. Among contractors, 31 percent said it will grow slowly and 23 percent said the budget will remain flat.

Chenok said CIOs and CFOs will focus on directing funding to areas most important to the agency’s mission. But fiscal constraints won’t allow agencies to spend much money on new technologies.

“We have tried to make advancements [in technology], but everything is shortsighted and underfunded to do the job correctly. As a result, we are behind the power curve,” one survey respondent said.

Chenok said the relatively long length of the budget cycle is an issue, especially compared to the pace of technology. “It’s difficult when agencies try to be precise in planning their budgets 1.5 to 2 years in advance of when they make the actual purchase.”

He recommends that agencies use a working capital fund model. In their budget planning, government agencies would include money in a technology fund. This allows them to buy equipment or technology services as needed without having to specifically outline the costs in their budget requests.

Industry collaboration

The equipment and software that agencies use tend to be older than what the private sector uses. Survey respondents said the technology gap makes collaboration difficult between agencies and vendors.

“Vendors frequently have newer versions of software than the agency has, making it difficult to impossible to work on a document after a vendor has worked on it in the newer version,” a respondent said.

Another survey respondent agreed, saying contractors “usually have to provide us with hard copies for large documents.”

Federal employees overall had a more negative view than contractors in terms of how changes and advancements to technology have affected agency partnerships.

About 35 percent of feds did not think technology advancements have made working with industry easier. But 50 percent of contractors agreed that technology advancements in the government made it easier to work with agencies.

In addition, more than half of federal employees disagreed that partnerships with industry enable technological advancements at government agencies. Contractors were more optimistic, with 45 percent saying partnerships do help advance technology in agencies.

One contractor who responded to the survey said technology is not the only problem — the acquisition process also needs reform.

“I think federal agencies are too slow in implementing federal IT,” the respondent said. “A lot of projects I’ve seen are often implemented wrong or developed incorrectly because the government implemented the project at lowest cost possible. Thus, leading to even more taxpayer dollars to be wasted to hire another contractor to fix it.”

Other survey respondents agreed, with a majority of contractors and a plurality of federal employees saying current acquisition processes do not allow agencies to meet their missions in a timely manner.

Uncertain future ahead

Most federal employees (54 percent) said even though IT spending in 2014 will decrease, they believe the size of the IT contractor workforce will increase over the next five years.

Among those, 78 percent said the size will increase because federal hiring freezes and budget cuts will necessitate more dependency on contractors. Contractors who said the size of the workforce will increase cited the same reason.

Respondents who thought the size of the contractor workforce will decrease said federal budget constraints would lead to fewer workers.

“We have to borrow money now to make interest payments on the money we already owe,” one respondent said. “I see a dim future for government contracting.”

Although the future of IT in government and industry is uncertain, respondents overwhelmingly agreed technology has a big impact and is very critical to their jobs.

“Technology permeates everything. When we all wake up in the morning, many, if not most, Americans check their email, or their kids are on Facebook,” Chenok said. “It’s critical for the government to understand the missions of the agencies, whether they’re external or internal, and that technology is important to achieving all of those issues… It’s not surprising that technology is a critical part of the job, and that’s only going to increase in the coming years.”

MORE FROM THE SPECIAL REPORT: A NEW ERA IN TECHNOLOGY:

Lowest price becoming primary factor in IT, services acquisitions

DoD tasks its innovation experts with driving out cost of technology

Agency CIOs thinking smarter as IT spending declines