Washington doesn't understand the magnitude of the Federal IT crisis

I was interviewed this morning on DC-area radio (MP3 available). The trigger was a series of posts I've made about priorities for the Obama Administration's new CTO, in particular my argument that the United States needs a high-ranking official with CIO-like responsibilities. The hosts sneered a bit at the idea, and asked why it wasn't sufficient that there was a low-level bureaucrat in the Office of Management and Budget with limited authority trying to do similar things, in an effort he himself describes as "nascent." Similarly, they asked whether reform was possible, given the current laws governing IT contracting, whereupon I shot back that if it wasn't, then the obstructive laws should be changed as needed.

I'm getting the impression that folks in Washington are so beaten down that they don't begin to see the magnitude of the problem, nor of the opportunity to fix it. Consider, for example, the DOD IT mess. Or just consider the air traffic control system. Better air traffic control could avert some crashes, could avoid HUGE amounts of delay, could shorten even currently un-delayed flights, and could save VAST amounts of fuel. But in fact the system has barely been upgraded since the 1970s. A 1984 project awarded to Martin-Marietta failed utterly. A replacement project awarded to Lockheed-Martin has had very limited scope to date. A Lockheed-Martin effort called ERAM first awarded in 2002 (and revised in 2003 to include Raytheon after the inevitable protest) promises most of its benefits for the indefinite future, although some progress is evidently finally being made.

Given that grim backdrop, it's understandable that nobody is focused on the opportunities for change. I'm calling for nothing less than an agency-spanning consolidation project to radically reduce the number of systems and data centers the Federal government operates. All the usual benefits would ensue, notwithstanding that they would be limited by all the usual obstacles and pitfalls, and indeed the most severe versions of same. Do inertia and politics and genuine technical differences prevent you from coming close to the theoretical ideal of systems rationalization? Of course. But is the effort hugely worth undertaking anyway? You betcha.

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