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“Government isn’t that good at the rapid advancement of technology.” - Elon Musk
Most government technology systems are outdated, vulnerable, and built by the lowest bidder. The stress COVID-19 placed on the functions of government was even worse on government IT. Across the country, labor websites were inundated with applications for benefits with applicants going days without any form of response.
Now, just to complicate matters (thanks 2020), state and local governments and facing an increased threat from international and domestic hackers.
What can governments and technology companies do to improve government technology, increase innovation, and make government more responsive?
The public sector can never keep pace with the speed of innovation in the private sector. As the private sector continues to innovate, public sector employees are left to deal with outdated hardware, substandard internal software, and increased security threats. When compared to spending data in the private sector, it’s no wonder that when government IT was pushed to its breaking point by COVID-19, very few systems were able to withstand the pressure.
Spiceworks recently released their 2020 State of IT which surveys businesses about their IT spending and identifies new technology spending trends. In their report, they expect the adoption of AI technology to triple by 2021, edge computing to double, and the continued implementation of internet of things (IoT) solutions. As businesses implement new technologies to better serve their customers, governments are left behind; and as a result, citizens are not being served.
Meanwhile, states like New Jersey are asking programmers to come out of retirement to help fix their state’s unemployment systems that were written in COBOL (which is over 60 years old). With the ease of programming new software these days, government software solutions should not be programmed in-house. Policymakers should require off-the-shelf enterprise solutions that are adaptable and upgradable as demands change. Now there are several companies that specialize in developing government-specific software solutions; everything from professional licensing to the RFP process can be nearly automated thanks to improvements in government software in the private sector.
But the biggest underlying factor (besides cost) in the slow pace of implementing new technologies in government is due to the competition for IT professionals between the private sector and the public sector. In places like Austin where the tech industry is so prevalent, it’s hard for government employers to attract and retain talent. This constant flux of the human infrastructure causes systems to become outdated and keeps long term solutions from being implemented.
The state of Texas has taken incredible steps to improve its cybersecurity policies over the last few legislative sessions. Each agency is now required to produce a specific cybersecurity policy and to have a clear chain of command when it comes to responding to threats. However, the threat from cyber-attacks has exponentially grown during the COVID-19 outbreak. As government officials have been busy responding to the outbreak, foreign governments and organized hackers have also been busy trying to access and steal data.
Cities, counties, school districts, and colleges have recently faced a growing threat of ransomware attacks. In the past two weeks, three universities have become victims of a particular kind of ransomware. Ransomware poses a particular threat to government systems due to their direct real-world impact. By holding government data hostage, ransomers force payments in order to “unlock” networks and systems. In 2019, twenty-three Texas cities faced a coordinated ransomware attack that demanded a combined $2.5million to release captured data. Cities will continue to be a prime target for ransomware attacks, where security systems and funding are lacking.
Cybersecurity (and physical security) should always be at the forefront of government IT projects. Added costs to implement robust cybersecurity policies pale in comparison to the economic cost of responding to a successful data breach. Beyond that, each successful attack lessens the public’s trust in the government’s ability to protect their data.
Next week we’ll look at new technologies that have the potential to completely reinvent how the public interacts with their government and the numerous hurdles that have to be cleared to properly (and safely) implement.