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Congress Seeks to Update Its Computer Systems

June 23, 2022 by Tom Ramstack
Congress Seeks to Update Its Computer Systems

WASHINGTON — Congress is trying to catch up to the computerized automation that is running many American businesses but only now is filtering into more conservative government offices.

A House committee held a hearing Thursday to determine how to bring greater efficiencies into government operations through new computer architecture.

“I think often they feel their job is to keep the status quo,” said Stephen Dwyer, a technology policy advisor to the House majority leader, as he testified to the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

He was referring to members of the U.S. House administration who he has advised on technology management.

In one example, congressional staff members sometimes spend 12 to 15 hours arranging for groups of constituents to visit the Capitol and their representative. Computerized reservation systems could reduce the staff members’ time commitments to minutes, according to computer experts who testified Thursday.

Dwyer described the Dome Watch app as one of the greatest technology innovations in Congress. It posts information from the House intranet to update subscribers from among the congressional staff, the media and the public on the latest developments from the House floor.

But Dwyer said other innovations are needed, such as developing a system for accepting and reviewing unsolicited bids by government contractors, posting public comments on websites and having a single point-of-contact for computer issues in Congress. Currently, authority for managing computer systems is dispersed among several offices.

“There are a lot of good ideas out there,” Dwyer said. “We just need to improve the method for collecting them.”

Reynold Schweickhardt, an advisor from the San Francisco, California-based Lincoln Network, suggested greater use of open-source technology.

Lincoln Network is a foundation that advocates market-oriented ideas to improve innovation and social policy.

Open-source refers to computer software that the owners release under commercial licenses that grant customers rights to use, study, change or distribute the software and its source code to other persons. It generally refers to off-the-shelf computer apps that are modified for specific customer needs.

In the case of Congress, the needs would be more efficient government operations.

Schweickhardt made similar comments in response to inquiries from The Well News, saying, “A strategy on when and how to effectively use open-source and outside experts to accelerate innovation would be a great start.”

He also suggested greater coordination within government agencies and departments.

“The committee should look at the interdependent capabilities which can drive innovation,” Schweickhardt said. “If you hire a Formula One driver and give her a golf cart, she isn’t going to get very far. Siloed technical teams with different charters, lack of overall governance for technical projects, and difficulty for outside civic tech experts to effectively participate are aspects of the problem.”

Lurking behind any hopes for new computer wizardry, lawmakers and witnesses also acknowledged security risks.

This month, the Biden administration’s top cybersecurity experts warned that cyberattacks are the new normal for U.S. corporations and government agencies.

The warning follows a year of ransomware attacks that deeply hurt major businesses and thinly veiled threats by the Russians to retaliate against the computer infrastructure of anyone helping the Ukrainian war effort.

“The prospect of cyberattacks here at home — whether by Russia or other malign state and non-state actors — will not dissipate anytime soon,” Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Jen Easterly and National Cyber Director Chris Inglis wrote in an op-ed for the online publication CyberScoop.

Lawmakers on the select committee did not propose specific solutions to their computer needs, only agreement with the cyber experts that Congress needs an upgrade.

“We know that Congress has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to technological innovation,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., the committee chairman.

Tom can be reached at tom@thewellnews.com and @TomRamstack

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