Coffee with Bill: Out with the old, in with the cloud

Legacy system modernization is a top priority of state and local governments across the country. But why is it important? How big is the problem and what are the ramifications if governments do not address this problem?

In the state of Washington, we define a legacy system as any system that presents a constraint or risk to the line of business that it supports. These range from mainframe systems using the COBOL programming language created in 1959, to outdated operating systems such as Windows 2003.

By some estimates, fixing legacy system problems could cost state and local governments billions of dollars. Approximately 40% to 60% of government applications are considered legacy. This is due to a lack of funding and the lack of prioritized funding and the complexity of modernizing systems that, in some cases, have been performing well for 30 to 40 years. It is easy to kick the can down the road to the next CIO or agency head to deal with a problem, given the risk of the modernization process.

In addition to the constraints legacy systems present to businesses they support, they also have other problems that will continue to hold agencies back if not addressed. For example, access to critical data is an issue for many of these legacy applications because of siloed data contained in outdated database management systems. This makes the data difficult to extract and use for modern data analytics functions, which are key to creating a data-driven agency culture that uses data analysis for strategic and operational decisions.

An even greater concern is the security risk that legacy systems present due to outdated operating systems, the lack of vendor upgrades and security patches, and the lack of knowledgeable government and vendor resources needed to maintain the systems.

Organizations should approach legacy system modernization from a business-led portfolio management approach. While legacy system modernization is often thought of as an IT problem, this is in fact a business problem that constrains the business from moving forward and improving the services to the customers they serve. Given that, business leaders need to take a lead role by understanding what systems are legacy and prioritizing the modernization or replacement of the systems in alignment with business strategy goals.

Government agencies and department leaders should work with their chief information officers and IT leaders to build portfolio management discipline in their organization, understand the systems that are legacy, prioritize the modernization of the legacy systems, and develop an investment plan over a number of budget cycles.

The state of Washington is working within its enterprise IT governance structure to educate and inform our business leaders and technology leaders on legacy system modernization. We are approaching this problem from a whole-of-state approach and urging each agency to develop a legacy modernization strategy. The strategies should be aligned to an agency's strategic goals and prioritize the modernization of their legacy systems. They should also look to align the modernization with their data strategy, and security requirements, and address business process improvements so they are not putting a modern system in with legacy business processes.

To accelerate legacy system modernization in the state, WaTech is putting request legislation forward to develop a legacy modernization fund that agencies can utilize to apply for grants on small to medium legacy modernization projects. This fund would be governed by a multidiscipline leadership group that would review grant applications, make a determination on funding and allow agencies to receive funding quickly to address their legacy issues.

In conclusion, if governments are going to move forward with the transformation of their services to the public, they must have a plan to modernize their legacy systems. We can no longer push this issue down the road for others to deal with. There's too much at stake and a real risk to the timeliness and quality of the services governments provide to those they serve.

Bill Kehoe

WaTech Director/State CIO