What to expect: 2017 IT trends in government and the public sector

Government IT represents a significant percentage of tech spending. Here's some idea where you can expect your tax dollars to be spent in 2017.

Something you hear a lot in government is, “Government should be run like a business!” But in how many businesses does the boss and all the managers change every four years?

Regardless, government IT has a major impact on enterprise IT. Government agencies are typically one of the largest, if not the largest, employers in their regions, whether you’re talking about the federal, state, county, or city level. Any vendor with sense is going to pay attention to the largest employer.

Although government IT can have a reputation as being behind the times, in can also be a bellwether for technology trends, by virtue of both organization size and the amount of the data that government agencies manage. “We were the original big data customer in the world for IBM,” says Rob Klopp, CIO and deputy commissioner of systems at the Social Security Administration (SSA), headquartered in Baltimore. The Social Security checks that his agency sends out represent 5 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, he notes.

The future of public sectors in a citizen-centric digital world

As such, the money government agencies spend on IT represents a considerable chunk of tech spending, which means government has a noticeable influence on technology adoption. So let’s look at 2017 tech trends in three major sectors of government.

Making a federal case out of it

With the election of Donald Trump as president, the potential for change in federal IT trends is great. At least 10 CIOs in federal agencies are political appointments, which means those people are slated to be replaced by the incoming administration, according to Federal News Radio's Jason Miller. That includes Tony Scott, who was recruited from VMware and appointed by President Barack Obama as the third CIO of the U.S.

Even in government agencies where that isn’t the case, CIOs may choose to leave for other opportunities. Moreover, even if the CIO position itself isn’t a political appointee, the agency head may be, potentially resulting in a change in the agency's overall direction. The result could be a slowdown in federal IT development for several months while new people are appointed and get their footing.

Despite the potential for upheaval, Klopp doesn’t see overall federal IT trends changing all that much. “We see generally positive statements from the new administration around technology, and the question just becomes whether there’s the will to fund it or not,” he says. “It’s not a partisan thing at all—just that there are a lot of things that need to be done and there’s a question of priorities.”

So what are those trends? “There’s a giant emphasis on cybersecurity,” Klopp says. “As the threats ramp up, we’re trying to ramp up our ability to defend against those threats at a faster pace. There’s a significant emphasis on building sophisticated capabilities and defense around cybersecurity.”

The other major federal trend is IT modernization, and the SSA is at the forefront. “We actually got into computing early on in the 1960s because we had so much data,” Klopp explains. The downside is that much of the SSA runs on legacy platforms that aren't easy to update. “All those systems run on 16 million lines of COBOL and 7 million lines of Assembly,” he says. “We have the problem of trying to figure out how to find the investment that allows us to spend money and modernize these systems in a world where spending more on government is not a popular topic.”

Old systems also exacerbate cybersecurity, as they often need to be updated before they can be made more secure, Klopp says.

We have the problem of trying to figure out how to find the investment that allows us to spend money and modernize these systems in a world where spending more on government is not a popular topic.

Rob Klopp CIO at the U.S. Social Security Administration

At the end of 2016, Congress passed a bill to provide funding for IT modernization. “The expectation is that this bill will very quickly be reconstituted under the new Congress,” he says. Klopp adds that he hopes Congress will recognize that modernizing IT infrastructure requires the same kind of investment as modernizing infrastructure such as roads and the electrical grid.

No matter what happens, he won't be around to see it. The Obama administration recruited Klopp from the private sector, where he worked for startups such as Greenplum. Now he's returning to his roots in industry. “I was going to do that regardless of who won,” Klopp says. “In the time I’ve been here, I’ve reorganized systems completely and put in a staff of career federal folks in charge of major components. When I go away, those folks will run the organization until such time as the new administration appoints a new CIO. Nobody knows if that will happen shortly or if it’ll take a year, but the organization is prepared to carry on without me.”

The state of state IT

While state governments didn’t have such a big switchover in November as the federal government, several statehouses did change parties. Others are still working on assimilating changes made in previous elections as well as recovering from the Great Recession.

One major trend in state government IT is reducing spending and streamlining operations through consolidation, according to Ed Toner, CIO of the state of Nebraska. “In 2016, we consolidated systems and support teams for both state network and the server administration,” Toner says, an effort he expects the state to continue in 2017. “Nebraska’s consolidation effort simultaneously improves efficiency and the quality of state IT services. Having worked successfully with other state agencies to develop that base, we will complete the third and final phase of our yearlong consolidation plan: desktop support Q1 2017.”

Government IT organizations at all levels have also been dealing with what's known as the silver tsunami. When the economy was bad, government employees who were close to retirement held on to their jobs; as the economy improves, a wave of retirees is expected. And in hiring new employees, government IT organizations need to fight the perception that they offer lower salaries and less interesting work than the private sector.

This issue is something Toner is dealing with as well. “The work culture at the State of Nebraska is changing to provide more opportunities to young professionals,” he reports, starting with an internship program. “Our agency has at least 25 interns from state universities and local colleges who have been hired, are still working for us as interns, or are being recruited to fill open intern positions,” he says. “As they collectively build their own sort of ecosystem within the work environment, they are having a positive impact on the current workforce in technical knowledge and enthusiasm for the work.

Another county heard from

One major issue with government IT on the city and county level is that not all agencies can have a dedicated CIO. City and municipal budgets are smaller, which makes it more challenging to acquire both systems and personnel. And, as “creatures of the state,” cities and counties can be limited by state law in terms of what powers they actually have. For example, while some cities have set up municipal broadband to provide better Internet services to their citizens, some states have passed laws forbidding cities from doing this.

As with federal and state IT, security is a major issue for city and county IT, particularly if agencies can’t afford to hire the sort of security talent they might need. For that reason, city and county government may be seen as more vulnerable to hacking attacks.

“A new wave of ransomware and Internet of Things (IoT) attacks in the ongoing cyberwar will require government IT to be on guard and ready to respond in 2017 to these increased vulnerabilities,” predicts Brian D. Kelley, CIO at Portage County Information Technology Services in Ravenna, Ohio. Why does Kelley believe this, and what is he going to do about it? “Cybersecurity experts, as well as the FBI, are warning of an uptick in both ransomware and cyberattacks in 2017,” he says. “At Portage County, we are increasing our network monitoring capabilities and employee education and awareness, and enhancing our overall cybersecurity program.”

At the same time, as the unit of government closest to the people, cities and counties have the ability to make the biggest splash in citizens’ lives. Plus, because cities and counties are smaller than state and federal governments, developing programs isn’t as arduous. For example, a number of cities have used IT to develop easy-to-submit forms for everything from obtaining business permits to reporting potholes. Portage County is no exception.

“In 2017, government IT will continue to focus on smart city projects, municipal broadband gigabit initiatives, IoT connectivity, and expanding online delivery of services and information to citizens via e-government,” predicts Kelley, who is executive director of GMIS International, a professional IT association of worldwide government IT leaders. “We see these trends growing in municipal government in the U.S. and across the world. In Portage County in 2017, we are exploring municipal broadband gigabit initiatives with adjoining counties, and expanding e-government offerings to citizens via the web with a new web portal.”

As the saying goes, the government is here to help you—and IT will be a critical factor in providing that help. 

The future of public sectors in a citizen-centric digital world