President-elect Joe Biden’s proposal to inject $9 billion of new money into the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) to speed Federal agency IT modernization and improve security is drawing uniformly positive reviews from across the Federal tech community, mixed with notes of caution about how the proposal will end up faring in Congress.

To recap: Biden is featuring the Federal tech funding proposal as part of a much larger $1.9 trillion plan that focuses on COVID-19 response and economic recovery. The centerpiece of the tech plan is the huge funding increase for TMF, which exists to finance IT modernization projects, but also requires repayment of borrowed money.

The proposal includes another $1.2 billion of new funding: $690 million for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to secure Federal civilian networks and support pilots of shared security and cloud services; $300 million for the General Services Administration’s Technology and Transformation Services (TTS) unit to “drive secure IT projects”; and $200 million targeted at the Federal CISO and U.S. Digital Service that will help pay for hiring of “hundreds” of additional IT experts.

TMF Opportunities

“Funding the TMF is a powerful lever to accelerate modernization and support agencies in building sustainable capabilities,” former Federal CIO Suzette Kent told MeriTalk today.

Asked about what broad categories of projects the additional funding could help agencies get ahead on, she said that list could run the gamut of cybersecurity, digital transformation, data, AI and other automation technologies, along with workforce skills development.

Kent emphasized that some initiatives could span multiple agencies, including “collaboration tools that integrate or connect the government enterprise, shared services, and more efficient workforce support tools,” including areas such as retirement, security clearances, and employee on-boarding. “That is one of the biggest gaps where TMF could help,” she said, referring to projects that span multiple agencies.

At the same time, a knowledgeable source in Federal IT policy circles emphasized that the new TMF and agency funding proposed by President-elect Biden needs to line up with priorities of the Federal CIO office, lest the larger effort fall victim to excessive mission sprawl when implemented across numerous agencies.

On the Hill

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who chairs the House Government Operations Subcommittee and was the prime mover behind getting a $1 billion funding increase for TMF as part of the ultimately unsuccessful COVID-19 relief legislation last year, was ebullient at the news of the Biden proposal.

“I am delighted the incoming Biden administration recognizes the Technology Modernization Fund can be a tool to drive IT modernization in the Federal government, and I am eager to work with them to ensure the TMF is successful,” Rep. Connolly said.

Likewise, Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., one of the leading advocates in Congress for improving Federal cybersecurity, praised the news. “I’m also grateful to see the President-elect pushing for investments in cybersecurity in the wake of” the Russia-directed hack of thousands of government and private sector networks via SolarWinds Orion products, he said.

“We have missed leadership like this in the White House,” the congressman said, adding, “I hope he will consider expanding IT modernization efforts to state and local governments as well.”

Prospects for Passage

Alan Balutis, Senior Director and Distinguished Fellow at Cisco, and a former Commerce Department CIO, said he was “both astounded and thrilled to see not only the Technology Modernization Fund, but other major IT initiatives” included in Biden’s proposal. “It signifies to me how he sees the importance of technology to stimulate the economy, to create jobs, and as a sort of force multiplier.”

But he also injected a note of caution about how much of the President-elect’s IT funding proposals will end up becoming law, given the relatively small amount of new funding – $25 million per year – that Congress has approved for TMF in each of that past three years. “I wouldn’t rush out and start ordering or buying things, because you’ve got to look at the history” of congressional appetite to increase TMF funding, he said. Noting that Congress in each of the past several year has balked at $100 million TMF increases, he concluded, “we’ll have to see.”

And he warned that with national debt ballooning in recent years, “I think there’s a very high probability that [the Biden TMF proposal] is going to get weeded out or skinnied down considerably in the final bill.”

TMF Mechanisms

Tony Scott, who served as Federal CIO during the Obama administration from 2015 to early 2017, explained that the TMF was conceived to help Federal agencies fund projects that wouldn’t fit easily into the “ordinary course” of agency budgets and appropriations.

“So I think the significance of [the Biden proposal] is that agencies can think bigger and more strategically than they probably could have before,” he said, adding the caveat of how the proposal fares in Congress.

Asked what kinds of work an expanded TMF might direct funding toward, Scott didn’t get into specifics, but did point to engineering more fundamental changes in core legacy government IT systems, rather than continuing to build on top of them.

“You’ve got to scrape it down and look and see what are the systems and the hardware, and whether the infrastructure is really set up in such a way to deliver agility, flexibility, cost effectiveness, and whether it is fit for purpose in the best way,” Scott said. “What we’ve been doing over the past 30-40 years is just putting a new layer of paint on top of the old stuff.”

He also talked about TMF repayment provisions – which some in the tech community have said end up tamping down demand for borrowings – and said in their defense that they also reinforce discipline in the process.

He said that reticence of agencies to apply for TMF funding might be helped by allowing longer repayment timeframes, but added, “I think it’s good discipline to have the payback provision there because it forces you to look at return on investment.”

“It forces agency leadership – both the political and the career people – to scrutinize what the proposal is in a much more thorough way. I think that’s been some of the success of the existing projects – we had that scrutiny – and it wasn’t just somebody’s flash-in-the-pan idea, but the projects you’ve had real merit, real payback, and real value.”

View from Industry

Matthew Cornelius, Executive Director of the Alliance for Digital Innovation (ADI), said his group “strongly supports the Biden American Rescue Plan which will ensure that robust technology and cybersecurity capabilities are provided to support the execution of his ambitious and necessary agenda. These immediate IT modernization investments that will speed the government’s ability to deliver vital benefits, programs, and services to the American people.”

“In earmarking $9 billion for Technology Modernization Fund, the Biden team clearly understands the unique value proposition of IT modernization and how important effective technology infrastructure will be for supporting agency efforts to respond to COVID-19 and accelerate the delivery of enhanced digital services that citizens are demanding,” Cornelius said. The remaining tech funding requests to CISA, GSA, and the Office of Management and Budget “highlight how the Biden team plans to significantly expand digital services talent in government, ensure a robust response to the recent SolarWinds hack, and enable these agencies to provide critical technology and cybersecurity services to the entire Federal government,” he said.

Asked what kinds of projects would be ripe for new TMF funding, Cornelius seconded Kent’s recommendation for projects that help multiple agencies.

“OMB and GSA should immediately begin scouring the interagency for high priority, potential multi-agency projects that can be funded,” he said. “The pandemic has shown a bright light on the limitations of agencies acting as siloes and managing their technology infrastructure and assets as personalized capabilities. Now is the time to leverage the lessons learned from the year-long COVID-19 response in the government to pick high priority investments – for example with collaboration tools, identity management upgrades, and hyperscale data analytics capabilities – that all agencies can leverage to modernize and work more seamlessly as a single enterprise.”

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.