Our Digital Future Is Stuck in the Past

December 7, 2020

Server Cabinet

It’s time to reboot and upgrade our digital infrastructure

There’s almost nothing that we don’t transact online these days. We pay our bills, order our dinners, go on dates, file our taxes, and so much more. And we count on the fact that we can do it so efficiently and safely. It’s a false sense of security, particularly when it comes to digital government.

You wouldn’t drive across a crumbling bridge on the verge of collapse, hanging from frayed suspension wires just a jolt away from snapping. But you’re doing the digital equivalent every day. The public digital services we rely on are often built on ancient (digitally-speaking) infrastructure that’s one leaking pipe away from total collapse. Literally. Until recently, one of our clients — a major American city — stored their payroll records on a server in the basement of their city hall under a leaking water pipe. It wasn’t until the city’s CTO made a fuss that they realized it might be time to move to the cloud before disaster struck.

And that client wasn’t an outlier or exception. This became clear when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and brought with it a wave of unemployment applications. The state of New Jersey put out an urgent plea for programmers versed in COBOL, a programming language developed in the 1950s. The state’s unemployment system relied on forty-year-old mainframe computers where knowledge of today’s most common programming languages, like JavaScript or PHP, was useless. In California, workers drafted to help process the surge in applications quickly became frustrated by the out-of-date technology they were supposed to learn by reading an 800-page manual with no live support. And California’s citizens who tried to apply online encountered error messages and frozen screens that kept them from submitting their applications.

Stories like this are not hard to find, and we’re likely to see a new wave of them soon. As we brace ourselves through this next wave of the pandemic, people will go online for essential government services and vital transactions, and this shift may well be permanent.

The harsh truth is that our nation’s digital infrastructure — outdated, undersized, and insecure — isn’t ready to handle this shift. It simply cannot do what we need it to do. Without investing in our digital infrastructure and treating it like an essential foundation, rather than a “gee-whiz” extra line item, any new programs or vital reforms that our government seeks to enact won’t be able to get off the ground and up to scale.

It’s time to get serious. We need a Federal Department of Technology with the funding and boots on the ground to do more than just theorize about what a better tomorrow should look like and implement a smattering of improvements. Our national CTO should be more than just a figurehead. We need a change-maker who has the influence, resources, and budget to solve the problems we’ve known about for decades now. The government could invest 10 percent of any capital funds, including bonds, to create better digital infrastructure, particularly by supporting state and local level government. In today’s world, this infrastructure is just as real and essential as any highways or bridges, and yet we continue to treat it like an afterthought. It’s been largely left to states to figure out on their own how to expand access to broadband Internet or find room in the budget to move their data and digital services to the cloud.

The 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act, which became law in 2018, is a solution that does more in theory than reality, which may be why it’s largely gone under the radar. While its call for standardized, accessible, user-centered government websites sounds like a good idea, it lacks the regulatory teeth or administrative organization to actually get it done. The chairman of the House subcommittee tasked with overseeing agencies’ implementation of the law’s requirements admitted that the best they could hope for was “scattered compliance.” And it does little to recognize the importance of the underlying infrastructure behind these websites, and the outdated technology that often undergirds it all.

The federal government’s attempts to address the failings of our digital infrastructure are a disorganized hodgepodge, and they have failed to result in large-scale change. Programs like the U.S. Digital Service and 18F are geared at leveraging digital talent to elevate the functionality and user-friendliness of government websites across the country, and the work they do is laudable. But they are not large-scale solutions, and they can’t do anything to address the underlying infrastructure issues that plague our ability to have easy access to online government information and services. And more tellingly, they have little impact or oversight on the state and local government digital infrastructure that people living in America rely on.

It’s time for a robust plan and proper prioritization and investment to create a new infrastructure that’s better suited to people’s digital needs today and tomorrow. The solutions won’t be simple, but neither is navigating an ad-hoc assemblage of outdated mainframes and error messages.

Let’s start here: no more servers in basements, just one burst pipe away from calamity. It’s time to move our government data and services to the cloud. Funding a federal department of technology with a real budget, and the authority and oversight to help state and local governments make the investments that matter in digital infrastructure, is a step in the right direction. Having better and more standardized digital infrastructure at not just the federal level, but at the state and local government level, will reduce costs and benefit all of us.

In just 44 days, a new Administration will move into the White House with plans for tackling our country’s biggest challenges. Let’s make sure digital infrastructure is one of them. It’s time to create the secure, reliable, and robust foundation we require to meet the needs and aspirations of everyone in the country.

This is just the beginning. Want to know more about how we should fund digital infrastructure? Check out my list of nine big ideas for making meaningful upgrades and improvements.