Brace yourself, because we are about to ask you to read a story about a boring technological problem and its impact on government. Like many dull things, though, it’s also important — a failure so pervasive that it costs taxpayers billions and has the power to bridge partisan divides, uniting Jared Kushner and congressional Republicans with congressional Democrats and Obama-appointed scientific experts. Despite those things, the problem remains so deeply unsexy that Kushner publicly speaking about it resulted mostly in headlines about what his voice sounded like.
Data center consolidation — the art and science of making sure technological infrastructure is being used in an efficient way — does not make for great TV. But experts say it does represent good governance, because fixing it simultaneously saves money and corrects structural problems in the way the federal government is managed. This spring, bipartisan proponents of data center consolidation managed to get a bill through the House that would help get the job done more easily. But it’s now sitting in senatorial limbo. Even when an issue has cross-party cooperation and the support of the White House, it can still fall victim to the current state of political disarray.
Data centers are physical places housing the computers that archive information for the government — records that have to be backed up so a single, failed desktop won’t mean they’re lost forever; historical data that can’t be consigned to the virtual trash bin but also isn’t needed every day; statistics that need to be accessed by multiple people who work in different locations. Some are like warehouses — imagine the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but with racks of blinking electronics instead of wooden crates. Others are more prosaic, like a closet in someone’s office with a couple computers sitting screenless and lonely in the dark. As storage becomes less physical and more digital, we’ll only rely on them more.
But, right now, the federal government has more data centers than it needs, which is a problem since excess data centers mean more spent on building rental, electricity demand, maintenance workers and air conditioning bills. Between 2012 and 2016, data center consolidation efforts saved taxpayers a reported $2.3 billion. But experts say there’s still a long way to go. They talk in terms of the utilization rate — effectively how much of the energy being used by the equipment in a data center actually goes to doing productive work. If the rate is low, that means you’re spending money without getting much benefit from it. The average server in a data center owned by the federal government has a utilization rate between 9 and 12 percent, said David Powner, director of information technology management issues for the Government Accountability Office. The goal set by the federal Office of Management and Budget is something like 60 percent.
This problem isn’t confined to the government, but the government has run into some unique problems while trying to solve it.
Federal data center consolidation efforts have been ongoing since 2010, but while more than 4,300 federal data centers have been closed — out of a total 5,597 scheduled for elimination — many were low-hanging fruit: small, closet-size data centers that didn’t take much effort to close down but also didn’t save much by disappearing, said former Obama Chief Information Officer Tony Scott. Closing larger data centers is more complex and, in many cases, would require technological upgrades that agencies don’t have the budgets to implement. That’s because, in government, funding for software, programming, and other technological infrastructure comes when a project is first implemented. As time goes on, the project will get the funds to maintain itself, Scott said, but not the funds to improve. “If it was started in the ‘90s, it’s running on ‘90s technology. If it started in the ‘60s, it’s running on ‘60s tech,” he said. That can make it difficult to merge the data centers where that software is running.
Meanwhile, Powner said, there have been cases of agencies closing data centers and saving money but not reporting it. “There are some weird incentives in government,” Powner told me. “If you don’t spend your budget, they’ll take it away.” The result is a loss of transparency about how federal dollars are being spent. Document the savings, and you can’t use it for other projects, no matter how legitimate. Fail to report the savings and it becomes available to use, but taxpayers now have no real record of how it’s being spent.
Texas Republican Will Hurd and Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly are trying to solve these problems with their Modernizing Government Technology Act. It would establish a centralized modernization fund that all agencies could use, and, more groundbreakingly, authorize agencies to reallocate the money they’ve saved by consolidating data centers and reinvest it as working capital. Both Powner and Scott praised the effort. It passed the House easily in May. If it becomes law, the bill could be both a heartwarming show of a functional Congress working across party lines and a success for the White House. When Kushner made his first public speaking appearance in June, as part of a White House technology summit aimed at bringing ideas from the business world to government, the need for data center consolidation was one of the main issues he championed.
But that only works if the Senate has time to pay attention. “We are awaiting action in the Senate,” Connolly said. “Given the … what’s the polite word? … the current hiccups legislatively, one does not know if it will be a convenient time to bring it up or if they are just in stasis.”
For now, the Senate version of the Modernizing Government Technology Act is sitting in committee, where it’s been since April. And, even if it does make it to a vote, the project of data center consolidation could still be hamstrung by management issues this bill doesn’t address, like the overabundance of agency-level chief information officers. There are at least 250 people in the federal government with that title, according to Connolly and Hurd. They’ve counted 14 in the Department of Homeland Security alone. Most private companies just have one, but technology often came to the government piecemeal from the bottom up, rather than all at once from the top down. Today, so many people have the same title that it’s not always clear who has ultimate authority, making it difficult to know where the buck stops and who can approve consolidation decisions.
Ironically, this problem is currently exacerbated by the lack of a top CIO, the one in the White House. That role is currently unfilled, and Powner, Scott, Connolly and Hurd all said that position was important for coordinating among the different agencies and ensuring that someone has the authority to make the kinds of decisions that allow large, complex data centers to be reconfigured. It’s wonderful that Kushner’s Office of American Innovation is paying attention to data center consolidation, Scott said, but that top CIO role will be crucial to making those goals a reality. “Ideas are great, but implementation is what really matters at the end of the day,” he said. “If you don’t have somebody really, really focused on implementation, you’re going to come up short.”