At a personal level, everyone sees how much technology is changing the way society works: ubiquitous cellphones, the national shift to work-from-home in a matter of weeks and the domination of e-commerce in the consumer space are just a fraction of the ways that IT is changing everything.
The role of the federal Technology Modernization Fund, or TMF, is to catalyze that magnitude of change throughout the government. Unlike the societal shift, which is driven by many factors with capitalism foremost among them, the purpose of applying technology to changing the way government works is to make it more efficient and responsive to citizens while increasing the productivity and job satisfaction of employees.
On Nov. 17, the Association for Federal Information Resources Management hosted a webcast for its Virtual Monthly Speaker series that focused on “Reimagining and Transforming Mission Delivery through IT.”
Deputy Federal Chief Information Officer Maria Roat from the Office of Management and Budget emphasized the central role that technology plays in every facet of the government’s mission. “For us as digital leaders, we have to think about strategies to accelerate modernization across the government,” she said. “What we’re designing has the public in mind, and we’re using data to drive all our service decisions.”
Roat said the TMF is key to modernizing government operations in line with citizen expectations. The $1 billion boost the fund received in the American Rescue Plan, or ARP, earlier this year is having a positive effect.
“Just getting the funding to get started has really made a difference,” she said. “To change [historical underinvestment] we have to use bold, multi-year investments to drive [systemic changes.] The faster we can adopt modern technologies and cloud services, the faster we can deliver.”
But it is not just about technology. Roat said another key to meeting the mission is the federal workforce. She applauded the launch of digitalcorps.gsa.gov to bring IT professionals into public service earlier in their careers, as well as the reskilling programs being offered in numerous departments and agencies for current employees.
“This does include training traditional, non-technical federal employees,” Roat said. “They’re the people who are doing the day-to-day work. They may not be technical, but they understand the processes.”
A panel of government employees then discussed what the TMF is doing to make use of that new funding, and how it affects the way the program works today.
Raylene Yung was named executive director of the TMF in September, just in time for the first big wave of applications following the funding boost.
“By far, we have way more demand than funds. More than $2 billion [in applications] and growing, so it’s already [double] that billion,” Yung said.
Sanjay Gupta, chief technology officer at the Small Business Administration, is one of the TMF board members who decide which applications get funded. He, too, has already felt the accelerated pace.
“We focus on two main areas: assessing the proposals and making decisions, then providing ongoing oversight” of recipients’ progress in meeting their goals, Gupta said. “When the TMF got the appropriated [funds] in March, we needed to accelerate our reviews and decision-making. Typically the board would meet once a week, a long meeting … but because we were getting such inflows of proposals, we started meeting twice a week because we wanted to get the money out there as soon as possible.”
Autumn Maxey, lead IT specialist and TMF liaison for the Office of Information and Technology, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, runs the TMF-funded modernization program for the Automated Commercial Environment, which handles import and export processing. The grant was approved in the TMF’s first tranche of projects, back in 2018, to support migrating ACE from mainframes to the cloud.
“Our immediate return on investment is mainframe retirement,” Maxey said. “What we’re trying to get to, partnering with U.S. agencies and citizens [is] a modernized interface, cybersecurity … and also ease of use for those cargo ships coming to us, that they’re ready to enter” as soon as they reach port.
Gupta said the ARP funding had two specific objectives: how modernization could support COVID-19 relief efforts and how it can strengthen cybersecurity.
When the cybersecurity executive order was issued in May, Gupta said the TMF received multiple proposals focused on zero trust, a central aspect of the order.
“How do we find a way to help all the agencies on their journey to zero trust,” he said. “Maybe we fund one or two initiatives that will create [replicable] outcomes … There’s been a back-and-forth [among board members] about the best way we can help all agencies improve their zero trust architectures.”
Gupta said the TMF board meetings discussing these kinds of issues, along with hashing out questions on applications, are “very active.”
“They’re anything but relaxing because we’re very engaged in having a good dialogue,” he said. “We’re intense, diverse, representing multiple perspectives.”