Your take: Readers question efforts to toss old federal technology

We know you’re busy, so here’s your cheat sheet to the stories that Federal News Radio readers are talking about this week on our Facebook page, on Twitter and here on our website. Catch up and add your voice to the conversation.

 

The big debate over federal computer systems:

Federal Chief Information Officer Tony Scott says legacy systems are impeding cybersecurity, mobility and even agencies’ missions. But Federal News Radio readers, who have probably been in government longer than Scott, question his insistence on replacing decades-old systems with newer, faster, better cloud-based versions.

“I occasionally boot an old computer that uses DOS 6.22 It still does one and only one specific thing just as good as it did the day it was purchased new. No network. It doesn’t need it or care. The BIOS was fixed with a Y2K patch back then, but it didn’t matter anyway. Sometimes the old systems are not so bad after all,” commented someone under the pseudonym COVCOM.

Congress may be on COVCOM’s side. Despite railing about the need for better federal cybersecurity whenever crises like the data breaches at the Office of Personnel Management strike, lawmakers haven’t seen fit to give agencies oodles of money to modernize old IT. (Maybe they agree with Federal Drive Host Tom Temin, who points out that the 56-year-old COBOL programming language continues to hum along in IRS systems and elsewhere, despite the gripes.)

When the White House says consolidate, federal data centers proliferate. Maybe they’re like gray hairs: Pull one out and three more will pop up. There are 11,700 federal data centers, 30 percent more than last year. That’s the opposite of what is supposed to happen under a six-year-old White House initiative to get agencies to shift their data to cloud services.

Maybe there’s a good reason for agencies’ reluctance, wrote a reader who calls themselves Sailor.

“Compartmentalization and redundancy have value in a world that is so dependent on computers and yet so vulnerable to their disruption and data theft. I am sure it would be cheaper to just post all of the Federal data to Facebook and wipe the hard drives of all Federal computers ourselves, rather than spend the money on anti-malware. But, is that really going to give us a more EFFECTIVE and SECURE government?” they said.

On the other hand, some readers say the less data in federal hands, the better.

Stiles DC wrote, “11,700 data centers and every single one of them probably has been infiltrated by Chinese intelligence. Of course, that’s in addition to the ones the Feds probably don’t even know to count.”

Modernizing IT has its share of challenges, too. OPM felt federal employees’ wrath recently when the web portal that feds use to update their payroll and related information buckled.  OPM had upgraded security features on the site, known as Employee Express, following the data breaches. Some feds found themselves locked out of the portal just as they were trying to make changes to their accounts during the health insurance open season.

Things that make you go hmm…

Defense Secretary Ash Carter approved plans to let military and civilian employees float more freely between government and private-sector work. It’s the “low-hanging fruit” part of an overhaul of the Pentagon’s personnel systems.  To start, the Pentagon will create a residency program for entrepreneurs and it will encourage military officers to work in industry for a year. In the grand scheme of things, the government envisions a much smaller force, with less of a need for civilian support services.

“It sounds as if the Pentagon is trying to make the revolving door, between military and military industries, even more automatic. That sounds like a bad idea to me — creating conflicts of interest,” commented Linda on our website. Others echoed her sentiments.

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“Some good ideas, but the truth is the Military is too top heavy. Too many Generals and Admirals for the amount of military forces. There should only be one general or admiral for every 20,000 troops,” responded a reader called Mentallect.

The 3 other federal stories you really shouldn’t have missed:

1. The Office of Personnel Management says agencies paid their top-ranked Senior Executive Service members an average of $187,094 in fiscal 2014. Bonuses were up compared to the year earlier.  It’s the federal salary equivalent of the Rorschach test: Is that too much? Not enough? Just right?

“My organization had two SES’ers. They both retired. It took over two years to get them replaced. Guess what? My organization didn’t miss a beat! No loss of productivity, no increased duties, and absolutely no noticeable difference whatsoever. Yet, they filled those two positions with new SES’ers. Obviously we didn’t need them for two years, and we don’t need them now,” commented someone who goes by tncem.

On the other hand, reader Mark Lumer commented, “I’m a retired SES and have been in the private sector since 2008. I’ve doubled my SES salary, and I worked harder in a day as an SES then I do now in a month. I was responsible for over $15 billion in contracts, and earned way less than half of what my industry counterparts made. If I was a country, I believe I would be in the top 100 economies in the world.”

2. The Office of Personnel Management defined the ubiquitous term “employee engagement” in a new white paper. It is “the employee’s sense of purpose that is evident in their display of dedication, persistence and effort in their work or overall attachment to their organization and mission,” according to the agency.

Federal News Radio readers had a field day with that.

“‘OPM will put together a focus group to work on the “community of practice” and gather other ideas for new metrics to track on UnlockTalent.gov,..’ Are they serious? Sounds like something from an SNL satire. You couldn’t make this stuff up. OPM couldn’t find their own collective behinds with both hands. How about a decent raise to make up for the 3 year pay freeze?” commented chicagoman.

“Sounds like yet more nonsense to give “managers” and “administrators” the sense that they are something more than overpaid clerks, and that they are necessary. Generally speaking, they are not. Make a list of whatever the skilled employees did today, and call it a day. Give me a break,” added obscurechemist.

3. Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy told Congress that he would like to discipline misbehaving employees in stronger, quicker ways, but civil service protection laws slow down the process. Congress has already streamlined the discipline and firing process for senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department. Republicans want to do the same for the rest of VA’s workforce. Could the Secret Service be next?