Agencies struggle to stay ahead of the curve in new era of technology

Tuesday - 11/19/2013, 4:28am EST

The technology that surrounds us changes constantly. New models of smartphones are always popping up. Notifications of upgrades to our computer operating systems and software come every few weeks. Security systems are revamped often to ward off cyber attacks and hackers.

And a big change is coming to the federal technology community. For the first time ever, federal agencies are expected to spend less on information technology in 2014 than the year before. Federal News Radio's special report, A New Era in Technology, examines the sea change that will force everyone in both federal agencies and industry to think differently.

Federal News Radio surveyed nearly 900 federal employees and 50 government contractors about IT in government agencies. The survey was anonymous and all questions were optional. About 77 percent of all respondents completed the survey in its entirety.

Keeping up-to-date

When asked about technology modernization, 60 percent of federal employees and contractors said equipment such as desktop phones, computers and mobile devices in federal agencies have changed the most over the past five years.

At the same time, however, nearly 60 percent of feds and about 50 percent of contractors said equipment at agencies is behind the curve, and a majority of feds said computers need the biggest upgrades at their agencies.

With the ever-changing technology landscape, it's no wonder federal employees and contractors think government agencies are falling behind the curve when it comes to modernization of technology.

In addition to hardware and equipment, respondents to the survey noted their agencies do not use the latest versions or most up-to-date software.

"We are, perpetually, at least one operating system behind the rest of the universe," one survey respondent said.

Several agencies still use Windows XP, rather than newer versions like Windows Vista, 7 or 8. Some respondents said their agencies are also using an older version of Internet Explorer.

Moving toward emerging technologies

In an effort to modernize systems and save costs, many agencies are moving away from traditional technology and toward emerging technologies.

Govini, a government market research firm, analyzed trends of six emerging technologies: big data, cloud, cybersecurity, mobile technology, health IT and energy IT.

"I think the trend is healthy in a struggling market," said Geoff Celhar, vice president for research and analytics for Govini. "They've held pretty steady in the space of budget cuts. I would expect to see some growth in the next four or five years."

But with agencies still using old hardware, a transition to these emerging technologies could prove difficult.

"There's a lot of talk about these initiatives, how they want to focus on mobility or cloud technology, but the reality is there are a lot of complaints about old versions of equipment. I wonder how they're going to be able to focus on these newer technologies with older tools," Celhar said.

The learning curve

A strong majority of federal employees — more than 90 percent — said they have a desire to use more up-to-date technology. 72 percent of contractors agreed that employees at government agencies want to use more up-to-date technology.

But along with new technology comes a learning curve and the need for training.

"Training is available, but the time allotted is inadequate," one respondent said.

In the survey, 66 percent of federal employees said they disagree that agencies do a good job of preparing and training employees to use new technology systems.

"At best, they hand it out with a brief demonstration," one survey respondent said. "At worst, they hand you the box and expect you to figure it out."

Dan Chenok, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government and executive vice chairman of the Industry Advisory Council, said training is an important aspect of any job.

"I'm a big believer in group project training," he said. "Get a mix of employees together — some of whom are mentors and some of whom are learning. Have them work together on a project as a group, and then the people who are newer can learn from the people who are more experienced."

Chenok said no one-size-fits-all approach applies to training employees.

"It's really a question of looking at the skill set of the workforce and coming up with multiple avenues… There are multiple pathways, and a good human capital development program will take advantage of them all."