US government agencies are still using Windows 3.1, floppy disks and 1970s computers

Lawmakers push US agencies to replace outdated IT systems

Some U.S. government agencies are using IT systems running Windows 3.1, the decades-old COBOL and Fortran programming languages, or computers from the 1970s.

A backup nuclear control messaging system at the U.S. Department of Defense runs on an IBM Series 1 computer, first introduced in 1976, and uses eight-inch floppy disks, while the Internal Revenue Service's master file of taxpayer data is written in assembly language code that's more than five decades old, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

Some agencies are still running Windows 3.1, first released in 1992, as well as the newer but unsupported Windows XP, Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, noted during a Wednesday hearing on outdated government IT systems.

The government is spending more than US$80 billion a year on IT, and "it largely doesn't work," Chaffetz said during a House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. "The federal government is years, and sometimes decades, behind the private sector."

U.S. agencies now spend about spend about 75 percent of their IT budgets maintaining existing or legacy systems, with only about 25 percent going toward procuring new systems, said Dave Powner, director of IT management issues at the GAO.

The GAO told lawmakers that the Department of Veterans Affairs' payroll system and its benefits delivery network is written in COBOL, a programming language dating back to the 1950s, as is the Department of Justice's federal inmate tracking system and the Social Security Administration's retirement benefits system.

Committee members pushed tech officials from three agencies to update their IT systems. Agencies are working to modernize, but in some cases, the old systems still work and are low on the priority lists, the agency representatives said.

For example, the DOD's Strategic Automated Command and Control System for nuclear forces, running on an IBM Series 1, is a "tertiary" system that maintains 99.99 percent uptime, said Terry Halvorsen, CIO for the agency. The system is slated for replacement, but not until year three of a five-year modernization plan, he said.

Budget cuts in recent years have also slowed agencies' ability to update their IT systems, added Terry Milholland, CTO at the IRS. The IRS has about 650 fewer IT workers now than it did in 2011, said Representative Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat.

Republican committee members questioned the impact of recent budget cuts. In the early to mid-2000s, the IRS received significant budget increases, said Representative Mick Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican.

"When you're still using technology and computer systems from the '70s and the '80s, this is not a problem that started in 2012," he added. "How can you really sit here and tell us this is money?"

Several committee Democrats called on Congress to pass the Information Technology Modernization Act, a bill that would establish a $3.1 billion rotating fund to help agencies update their IT systems. An independent panel would review agency fund requests, and agencies would be required to pay back the money after their projects are complete and they presumably achieve cost savings.

The GAO's Powner also noted agencies could see more cost savings by continuing to consolidate data centers, an effort ongoing in President Barack Obama's administration since 2010. While agencies have closed about 3,100 data centers, another 10,500 remain in operation, he said.

Closing an additional 2,000 data centers, in some cases moving to the cloud, could save $5.4 billion, he said. "We need to definitely get more modern," he said.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Grant Gross

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Essentials

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?