Outdated government computers waste billions in tech funds

The Government Accountability Office says that key federal agencies are using "museum ready" computer systems that the government wastes billions to keep running.

Congress appropriates about $80 billion a year for computer upgrades across the federal government.  But much of that goes to maintaining ancient systems – some of them more than 50 years old.

Some shocking examples from the report:

Fox News:

— The Defense Department's Strategic Automated Command and Control System, which is used to send and receive emergency action messages to U.S. nuclear forces. The system is running on a 1970s IBM computing platform, and still uses 8-inch floppy disks to store data. "Replacement parts for the system are difficult to find because they are now obsolete," GAO said. The Pentagon told GAO it is initiating a full replacement and the floppy disks should be gone by the end of next year. The entire upgrade will take longer.

— Treasury's individual and business master files, the authoritative data sources for taxpayer information. The systems are about 56 years old and use an outdated computer language that is difficult to write and maintain. Treasury plans to replace the systems but has no firm dates.

— Social Security systems that are used to determine eligibility and estimate benefits, about 31 years old. Some use a programming language called COBOL, dating to the late 1950s and early 1960s. "Most of the employees who developed these systems are ready to retire and the agency will lose their collective knowledge," the report said. "Training new employees to maintain the older systems takes a lot of time." Social Security has no plans to replace the entire system but is eliminating and upgrading older and costlier components. It is also rehiring retirees who know the technology.

— Medicare's Appeals System, which is only 11 years old, faces challenges keeping up with a growing number of appeals, as well as questions from congressional offices following up on constituent concerns. The report says the agency has general plans to keep updating the system, depending on the availability of funds.

— The Transportation Department's Hazardous Materials Information System, used to track incidents and keep information regulators rely on. The system is about 41 years old, and vendors no longer support some of its software, which can create security risks. The department plans to complete its modernization program in 2018.

That the safety of our nuclear deterrent is partly dependent on a computer system almost as old as I am (62) is frightening.  But the basic problem the report reveals is a refusal by government managers to allocate resources where they are needed.  It's so much easier to just keep doing what you've been doing all along, even if that means remaining stuck using the technology of the 1980s.

Computer-intensive tasks we demand of the government are performed with systems that are almost obsolete before they're completed.  Case in point: The new air traffic control computer system that was supposed to be online by now but has been delayed for years by cost overruns and unworkable designs.  The system design dates from 2003, before there were smartphones. 

Everything from immigration enforcement to tracking terrorists is dependent on fast, efficient computers.  That we don't have that in most I.T. departments of the government is not only stupid, but dangerous.