Get out of the 5-year rut: Modernize your IT in just 1 year

In today’s digital economy, commercial IT solutions are emerging at a faster rate than ever as the result of modern practices and methodologies, such as agile software development. Companies now have more choices, thanks to the open source communities, cloud computing, application development platforms and subscription-based business models.

These approaches are now more like renting than investing and allow the choice of the best solution available and then quickly upgrade or replace it at lower cost when it is no longer applicable. This phenomenon is the key enabler of rapid innovation in many industries, from retail to financial services to transportation.

Unfortunately, the pace of change in federal government IT has not kept up with private industry. Fortunately, several of the private sector’s practices could be used by government program and acquisition offices, as well as contractors, to accelerate IT modernization, and achieve better outcomes within one year instead of five.
Figure 1: IT solution modernization life cycle in one fiscal year

IT modernization in one year

The three major groups crucial to IT program success are program office staff, acquisition office staff, and contractors. To cut an IT modernization effort from five years to one:

  • Program office staff should adjust its budget to accommodate modernization and determine work backlog and how to measure the program performance outcome.
  • Acquisition office staff should focus on making the process shorter and more effective with a minimum risk of protest by adopting innovative acquisition methods.
  • Contractors should adopt industry best practices and use iterative implementation.

The tools and frameworks that will allow government agencies to accelerate the IT modernization process are shown below in Figure 2.

Figure 2: IT Modernization technologies, tools and frameworks to accelerate IT modernization

The program office

Program office staff should use the following frameworks and methods to achieve faster and better outcomes:

  • Agile project/program management is essential to program office staff, so they can best understand their roles and responsibilities as product owners. Agile methods like Scrum or SAFe minimize bottlenecks, expensive and unnecessary traditional processes such as gate reviews and heavy written documentation.
  • Organizational change management identifies key milestones in solution delivery and manages stakeholder expectations. The program office should plan for communications outreach and training for the end users and their managers. Providing channels for feedback and concerns from stakeholders and including them in the rollout process will expedite delivery and user adoption.
  • Technology Business Management (TBM) provides solutions strategies, methodologies and tools to manage cost, quality, and value of IT services. Program office leaders should use it to make data-driven IT investment decisions.
  • Funding preparation is essential to align budgets with needed upgrades, contracts and modernization. The color of money is a real issue when aligning with fiscal year and what programs have budgetary flexibility. If budget increases are not available, consolidating infrastructure and system budgets help to create the budget flexibility needed to make big transitions.
  • A logic model provides a systematic structure to evaluate program performance outcomes. The model includes an explanation of how resources and activities generate measurable outputs and quantitative and qualitative outcomes that can justify the investment decision.

The acquisition office

It is in the best interest of the agency for the acquisition office to make the process shorter and more effective with a minimum risk of protest by adopting innovative acquisition methods such as:

  • Non-FAR based contracts like Other Transaction Authority (OTA) and GSA Commercial Solutions Opening allow federal staff to perform a proof of concept or pilot work with a quick turnaround on the acquisition. These also have a small risk of protest as well as a low initial investment (ideal in case the experiment does not achieve the result expected).
  • Agile acquisition and contracting breaks down the system into smaller independent pieces, or modules, so they take less time to acquire and can be prioritized based on impact and expected ROI. Generally, it is completed within one year. It also gives the opportunity to evaluate a contractor’s performance before issuing subsequent tasks.
  • Reverse planning for acquisitions would enhance the success of system acquisition if it were viewed as a holistic process, from end state all the way back to the acquisition planning stage. Envisioning what the system would be like within a fiscal year is much clearer and easier than three to five years in the future.

The contractor

Focusing on industry best practices and working on smaller independent contracts with prioritized requirement backlogs will strengthen the contractor’s chance of successful delivery. Here are the tools and frameworks for a contractor to consider:

  • User-centric design focuses on system usability to accelerate user adoption and reduce rework, required when users resist working on the system.
  • Evolutionary architecture such as microservices (small, independent segments of an application’s code) allow the system architecture to evolve over time to support future changes by breaking up the system functional domain into small and independent services that can each be delivered, operated, maintained and upgraded faster.
  • Agile software development life cycle connects contractors with program office product owners and delivers the system iteratively, incorporating user feedback loops to ensure a usable product in months, not years.
  • Containerization includes integral software components (such as a microservice), and all dependencies in a single image that can be quickly replicated, implemented, and replaced as needed — without necessitating replacement of surrounding modules and functions.
  • Open-source software eliminates the software license procurement cycle and allow contractors to start building the system from day one. This helps to prevent vendor lock-in due to proprietary software.
  • Rapid application development (RAD) platforms accelerate system development by providing necessary common technical components so that contractors don’t have to reinvent the wheel and can therefore focus more on the system’s unique functions.
  • Artificial intelligence implementation like robotic process automation (RPA) reduces the integration constraint to external legacy systems by impersonating the real user to perform work needed for integration instead of waiting for them to be modernized.
  • Dev/Sec/Ops automates the system development life cycle to reduce time-consuming manual work and mistakes that create rework.
  • Cloud computing enables contractors to provision the infrastructure needed to deliver a solution within minutes instead of days or weeks. It eliminates the bottleneck of traditional on-premise infrastructure where automation is low and relies less on IT people from the agency to provision the project.

Figure 3: Comparison of Agile to Waterfall method on speed of system improvement.

When an agency adopts these tools and frameworks from acquisition through development and embeds them in the underlying technology architecture, federal agencies will be able to enter a new world of continuous upgrades, rather than a model that says “sorry, but you’ll have to wait until the next five-year upgrade cycle starts before we can adopt that improved technology.” The improvements will ensure lower cost, higher user satisfaction, and a better ability to meet their missions. Furthermore, they will no longer need to start planning five-years ahead for the next upgrade immediately after awarding an IT contract.

Pawin Chawanasunthornpot is an enterprise architect at REI Systems.