Not a four-letter word anymore

by / December 19, 2006
Among the things on which public CIOs and the people who appoint them differ is their respective use of the word legacy. CIOs tend to use it almost exclusively as an adjective, as in legacy data or legacy systems. Elected and appointed officials, however, tend to think about it as a noun, as in the body of work they leave as their professional legacy. CIOs seek to minimize the number of legacy systems they bequeath, while elected officials are driven to leave as large a legacy as possible. Both groups know that such are the measures by which they will be remembered.

A month after gubernatorial elections in 36 states, unsuccessful incumbents can only wonder whether they did enough to be well remembered. Successful incumbents often see their second (and even the rare third) term as their legacy play: They take bold moves to solve intractable problems by doing the right -- if unpopular -- thing, knowing they are unlikely to face the electorate again. So goes legacy as a noun.

The adjectival form is more commonly used among information technologists. Eric Sweden, enterprise architect at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, says legacy systems fit in as a function of value in the enterprise architecture (EA). "They fit wherever they are meeting agency missions in ways that cannot be done in other ways."

One of Sweden's colleagues, on the other hand, was quick to bury legacy systems and even suggested a three-word epitaph: "In the Dumpster."

The dismissive Dumpster retort reflects some combination of frustration over the care and feeding of aging systems that public-sector technologists would rather replace, and sales organizations see as targets of opportunity for making quotas in pushing newer and cooler technology into the so-called vertical state and local government market. The outworking of this combination is even reflected in Wikipedia's entry on the subject: "A legacy system is an antiquated computer system or application program which continues to be used because the user (typically an organization) does not want to replace or redesign it."

South Dakota CIO Otto Doll would take issue with Wikipedia's use of "want" as the operative word in the definition. In thinking about legacy's fit in EA, Doll said the two go together out of necessity. "It doesn't matter whether you are in a state of 600,000 or 6 million [people], you will never be able to keep everything current all of the time -- nor should you."

Modernizing older legacy systems often comes at the cost of creating tomorrow's legacy systems today because infinite demand is chasing finite resources. In the final analysis, legacy systems are like heavy metal music and world poverty: They will always be with us.

Deciding on the best available compromise whether to keep, modernize or unplug a legacy system represents an important intersection between a CIO's judgment and his boss's political legacy. What's more, legacy systems owners, including Cabinet members and other influential officials, have found themselves marginalized in discussions about the future.

Despite doing the mission-critical work of government, their systems have been characterized as legacy in its most pejorative sense (the same way airline analysts talk of legacy carriers as dinosaurs). And it ignores the opportunity to bring the legacy owners inside the campaign for modernization where they can be part of the solution rather than taking the blame as the problem that holds everybody else back.

Importantly the large systems' owners still have entr
Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.