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One nation, digitized

The ongoing quest to modernize government IT

By Richard McGill Murphy

On December 20, 2018, the president signed into law the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA), legislation designed to modernize how the federal government delivers digital services to citizens. The law sets minimum standards for security, ease of use and accessibility of government websites.

The U.S. government has a storied history of sponsoring technological innovation. The founding fathers enshrined patent protection in Article 1 of the Constitution. From the national railway system to the Internet, the federal government has invested significant resources in new technologies that benefited the entire country but were too expensive and risky for private companies to fund on their own.

However, the 21st Century IDEA Act recognizes that the technologies that the government uses to run its own operations and deliver services to citizens have not kept pace with the private sector. The federal government spends massive sums on IT: an estimated $95.7 billion in 2018 alone, not counting classified programs. Much of this money goes to maintain aging legacy systems that run a bewildering range of programs, from Medicare and Medicaid to Social Security, the IRS, the Veterans Administration and the Small Business Administration.

In 2017, 70.3% of total government IT spending went to maintain legacy IT, up from 68% in 2015. That spending crowds out investment in modern technologies like cloud, mobility and AI, which are essential to delivering the simple, elegant experiences that we enjoy in our consumer lives. It’s also risky, because legacy systems often “operate with known security vulnerabilities that are either technically difficult or prohibitively expensive to address,” according to the Office of Management and Budget.



No surprise, some of the biggest security breaches of all time have exposed government data. According to a list compiled by Digital Guardian, they include the U.S. Voter Database breach of 2015 (191 million voter records affected), the National Archives and Records Administration breach of 2009 (76 million records compromised), and the Department of Veteran Affairs breach of 2006, which exposed the personal data of 26.5 million veterans.

Government officials have been pursuing IT modernization for a long time. During the Clinton administration, Vice President Al Gore led the Reinventing Government Partnership, which introduced e‑filing for tax returns and created the FirstGov.gov website, a collection of links to government information that evolved into today’s USA.gov. President George W. Bush signed the E‑Government Act of 2002, which established a Federal Chief Information Officer within the Office of Management and Budget, and included several measures requiring internet access to government information and services.

In 2013, President Obama signed an executive order mandating open and machine‑readable data as the default standard for all government data. This jumpstarted the open data movement, allowing developers to build apps that allow citizens to access public data for many purposes, from mapping crime statistics by neighborhood to researching long‑term economic trends.

President Obama also launched the Office for Digital Services. ODS was originally launched as an emergency SWAT team of Silicon Valley techies who signed on to fix the floundering Healthcare.gov site. Today, ODS bills itself as a startup inside the White House, tasked with “building a more awesome government through technology.” In recent years ODS has launched successful initiatives like the new Vets.gov site, which helps veterans access health benefits, as well as a service that digitizes the review process for more than seven million immigration applications and requests every year.



On December 12, 2017, President Trump signed the Modernizing Government Technology Act into law. More than a year in the making, the law allows federal agencies to repurpose existing IT budgets for modernization efforts. The law created working capital funds at core federal agencies that didn’t already have them, and established a central modernization fund inside the General Services Administration.

Congress eventually appropriated $100 million to fund these initiatives. One early project paid for the migration of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s critical business systems from an antiquated mainframe database to the cloud, saving HUD $8 million a year. The fund also paid for the Department of Agriculture’s new Farmers.gov portal, and allowed the Department of Energy to deploy a cloud‑based email system that serves about 185,000 accounts across the department.

In this edition of Workflow, we cover a range of public sector IT initiatives that are improving the citizen experience of government. James Daly reports on an IoT network in Texas that provides an early warning system for floods along 600 miles of the Colorado River, as well as a New Jersey initiative that uses machine learning algorithms to identify fraudulent opioid prescriptions.

Much work remains to be done. Grant Gross reports that the average wait for a Medicare appeal decision is about two years. Intelligent chatbots and other forms of AI could cut that time and simplify tasks like applying for benefits, renewing a driver’s license or correcting a tax return. Over time, they could also take a healthy bite out of the $100 billion that we the people spend on government IT.

This article has been revised to include a description of the 21st Century IDEA Act.

Richard McGill Murphy is the editor in chief of Workflow. A journalist and social anthropologist by background, he runs a research and publishing program at ServiceNow that studies how emerging technologies are shaping the future of work.

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