Information Technology: Agencies Need to Develop and Implement Modernization Plans for Critical Legacy Systems

What GAO Found

In June 2019, GAO identified 10 critical federal information technology (IT) legacy systems that were most in need of modernization. These legacy systems provided vital support to agencies’ missions. According to the agencies, these legacy systems ranged from about 8 to 51 years old and, collectively, cost about $337 million annually to operate and maintain. Several of the systems used older languages, such as Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL). GAO has previously reported that reliance on such languages has risks, such as a rise in procurement and operating costs, and a decrease in the availability of individuals with the proper skill sets. Further, several of the legacy systems were operating with known security vulnerabilities and unsupported hardware and software.

Of the 10 agencies responsible for these legacy systems, GAO reported in June 2019 that seven agencies (the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, the Interior, the Treasury; as well as the Office of Personnel Management; Small Business Administration; and Social Security Administration) had documented plans for modernizing the systems (see table). Of the seven agencies with plans, only the Departments of the Interior’s and Defense’s modernization plans included all of the key elements identified in best practices (milestones, a description of the work necessary to complete the modernization, and a plan for the disposition of the legacy system). The other five agencies lacked complete modernization plans. The Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Transportation did not have documented modernization plans.

Table: Extent to Which Agencies’ Had Documented Modernization Plans for Legacy Systems That Included Key Elements, as of June 2019

Agency

Included milestones to complete the modernization

Described work necessary to modernize system

Summarized planned disposition of legacy system

Department of Defense

Yes

Yes

Yes

Department of Education

n/a – did not have a documented modernization plan

Department of Health and Human Services

n/a – did not have a documented modernization plan

Department of Homeland Security

No

Yes

No

Department of the Interior

Yes

Yes

Yes

Department of the Treasury

Partial

Yes

No

Department of Transportation

n/a – did not have a documented modernization plan

Office of Personnel Management

Partial

Partial

No

Small Business Administration

Yes

No

Yes

Social Security Administration

Partial

Partial

No

Source: GAO analysis of agency modernization plans. | GAO-21-524T

Agencies received a “partial” if the element was completed for a portion of the modernization.

GAO stressed that, until the eight agencies established complete plans, their modernizations would face an increased risk of cost overruns, schedule delays, and project failure. Accordingly, GAO recommended that each of the eight develop such plans. However, to date, seven of the agencies had not done so. It is essential that agencies implement GAO’s recommendations and these plans in order to meet mission needs, address security risks, and reduce operating costs.

Why GAO Did This Study

Each year, the federal government spends more than $100 billion on IT and cyber-related investments. Of this amount, agencies have typically spent about 80 percent on the operations and maintenance of existing IT investments, including legacy systems. However, federal legacy systems are becoming increasingly obsolete. In May 2016, GAO reported instances where agencies were using systems that had components that were at least 50 years old or the vendors were no longer providing support for hardware or software. Similarly, in June 2019 GAO reported that several of the federal government’s most critical legacy systems used outdated languages, had unsupported hardware and software, and were operating with known security vulnerabilities.

GAO was asked to testify on its June 2019 report on federal agencies’ legacy systems. Specifically, GAO summarized (1) the critical federal legacy systems that we identified as most in need of modernization and (2) its evaluation of agencies’ plans for modernizing them. GAO also provided updated information regarding agencies’ implementation of its related recommendations.

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    The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has faced challenges in its efforts to accomplish three critical information technology (IT) modernization initiatives: the department's health information system, known as the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA); a system for the Family Caregiver Program, which is to support family caregivers of seriously injured post-9/11 veterans; and the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) that collects and stores information and is used for processing disability benefit claims. Specifically, GAO has reported on the challenges in the department's three previous unsuccessful attempts to modernize VistA over the past 20 years. However, VA has recently deployed a new scheduling system as part of its fourth effort to modernize VistA and the next deployment of the system, including additional capabilities, is planned in October 2020. VA had taken steps to address GAO's recommendations from its 2014 report to implement a replacement system for the Family Caregiver Program. However, in September 2019, GAO reported that VA had yet to implement a new IT system that fully supports the Family Caregiver Program and that it had not yet fully committed to a date by which it will certify that the new IT system fully supports the program. In September 2015, GAO reported that VA had made progress in developing and implementing VBMS, but also noted that additional actions could improve efforts to develop and use the system. For example, VBMS was not able to fully support disability and pension claims, as well as appeals processing. GAO made five recommendations aimed at improving VA's efforts to effectively complete the development and implementation of VBMS; however, as of September 2020, VA implemented only one recommendation. VA's progress in implementing key provisions of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (commonly referred to as FITARA) has been uneven. Specifically, VA has made progress toward improving its licensing of software and achieving its goals for closing unneeded data centers. However, the department has made limited progress toward addressing requirements related to IT investment risk management and Chief Information Officer authority enhancement. Until the department implements the act's provisions, Congress' ability to effectively monitor VA's progress and hold it fully accountable for reducing duplication and achieving cost savings will be hindered. In addition, since fiscal year 2016, GAO has reported that VA faces challenges related to effectively implementing the federal approach to, and strategy for, securing information systems; effectively implementing information security controls and mitigating known security deficiencies; and establishing elements of its cybersecurity risk management program. GAO's work stressed the need for VA to address these challenges as well as manage IT supply chain risks. As VA continues to pursue modernization efforts, it is critical that the department take steps to adequately secure its systems. The use of IT is crucial to helping VA effectively serve the nation's veterans. The department annually spends billions of dollars on its information systems and assets—VA's budget for IT now exceeds $4 billion annually. However, over many years, VA has experienced challenges in managing its IT projects and programs, which could jeopardize its ability to effectively support key programs such as the Forever GI Bill. GAO has previously reported on these IT management challenges at VA. GAO was asked to testify on its prior IT work at VA. Specifically, this testimony summarizes results and recommendations from GAO's issued reports that examined VA's efforts in (1) modernizing VistA, a system for the Family Caregiver Program, and VBMS; (2) implementing FITARA; and (3) addressing cybersecurity issues. In developing this testimony, GAO reviewed its recently issued reports that addressed IT management issues at VA and GAO's biannual high-risk series. GAO also incorporated information on the department's actions in response to recommendations. GAO has made numerous recommendations in recent years aimed at improving VA's IT system modernization efforts, implementation of key FITARA provisions, and cybersecurity program. VA has generally agreed with the recommendations and has begun to address them. For more information, contact Carol C. Harris at (202) 512-4456 or harriscc@gao.gov.
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  • Florida Medical Doctor Pleads Guilty to Conspiring to Falsify Clinical Trial Data
    In Crime News
    A Florida medical doctor pleaded guilty to conspiring to falsify clinical trial data regarding an asthma medication, the Department of Justice announced today.
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    In Crime Control and Security News
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  • SAP Admits to Thousands of Illegal Exports of its Software Products to Iran and Enters into Non-Prosecution Agreement with DOJ
    In Crime News
    Software company, SAP SE, headquartered in Walldorf, Germany, has agreed to pay combined penalties of more than $8 million as part of a global resolution with the U.S. Departments of Justice (DOJ), Commerce and Treasury.
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  • FEDERAL COURT RESTRAINS TAMPA PHARMACY AND TWO INDIVIDUALS FROM DISPENSING OPIOIDS OR OTHER CONTROLLED SUBSTANCES
    In Crime News
    A federal court in Florida issued a temporary restraining order enjoining a Tampa pharmacy and two of its employees from dispensing opioids and other controlled substances, the Department of Justice announced today.
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  • Justice Department Files Civil Action to Shut Down Chicago-Area Tax Return Preparer
    In Crime News
    The United States has filed a complaint seeking to bar a Chicago-area tax return preparer from preparing federal income tax returns for others, the Justice Department announced today. The civil complaint against Lavon Boyd was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois and alleges that Boyd prepared federal income tax returns for Chicago-area taxpayers that significantly understated his customers’ tax liabilities by fabricating business losses. The suit alleges that Boyd fabricated or exaggerated his customers’ business expenses. The suit also charges that Boyd allegedly fabricated childcare expenses on at least one of his customers’ tax returns.
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  • Husband Sentenced to 188 Months in Prison for Human Trafficking Convictions Related to Forced Labor of Foreign Nationals
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department today announced that former Stockton, California resident Satish Kartan, 46, was sentenced today to188 months in prison for forced labor violations. In addition, U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. ordered $15,657 be paid in restitution to three victims, in part to cover their back wages and other losses.
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  • Justice Department Alleges Conditions at Iowa Institution for Individuals with Disabilities Violate the Constitution
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department today concluded an investigation into conditions at the Glenwood Resource Center (Glenwood), an institution for individuals with intellectual disabilities operated by the State of Iowa in Glenwood, Iowa.
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  • Justice Department Charges More than 14,200 Defendants with Firearms-Related Crimes in FY20
    In Crime News
    Today, the Justice Department announced it has charged more than 14,200 defendants with firearms-related crimes during Fiscal Year (FY) 2020, despite the challenges of COVID-19 and its impact on the criminal justice process.
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    In Human Health, Resources and Services
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